Those who watched Toronto’s 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday will remember this relatively scary moment for James van Riemsdyk in the third period:
This looked bad for James van Riemsdyk. He left for the room. Then he came back. Now he's on the ice again. Anyway, here it was. pic.twitter.com/BG1j24gtzn
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) October 24, 2017
As Van Riemsdyk struggled to get up and hobbed his way into the tunnel, many were certain that we had witnessed an injury serious enough to make him miss time. Sure enough, he was back a minute and a half later and finished the rest of the game.
Today, though, there’s still a bit of will-he, wont-he going on for this evening’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Van Riemsdyk skated on his own before practice but didn’t seem to be exerting full force. He participated in drills on his line, and was identified by Mike Babcock as a game-time decision, to be judged come warmups.
This is interesting not just for Van Riemsdyk’s sake, but for the player who would replace him; Josh Leivo.
Leivo was one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2016/17 season. Ranked all over the place in his six years of being a prospect within the organization, the Innisfil native followed up a bounce-back American Hockey League year with a stellar stretch as a super-sub for the Leafs. While he played just thirteen games and was pointless in his first four, he walked away with two goals and eight assists in his final nine, but up strong underlying possession numbers, and did so without the aid of favourable zone starts or heavy ice time.
Just as importantly, there was a distinct visual difference in the way he was playing. His skating looked better than it had in previous years, he was more aggressive on the forecheck, and he made the left wing hashmarks and the slot a very-very dangerous place to be a puck or an opposing defenceman while he was on the ice. Finally, the Lupul-lite hopes that many had placed on Leivo over the years were starting to come to fruition, with one caveat:
There was nowhere to play him. At least, in a system and structure that values role of stacking talent. As Toronto’s top nine got healthy, the only spot for Leivo to go would’ve been the fourth line, which sounds like a dream to some but, because of a perceived need for defensive play and an extra penalty killing option. As such, Kasperi Kapanen was called up to fill the spot next to Matt Martin and Brian Boyle, and to their credit, they had a string of quality (albeit, not always productive) games down the stretch.
This year, Leivo faces similar roadblocks. Toronto’s Top 9 is now a Top 10, with Connor Brown and Mitch Marner both seeing “fourth line time” that has been heavily supplemented with powerplay minutes and the odd double-shift or shuffle. Just about every winger in that obscenely deep group has a definitive case to keep their spot, too (some will argue against Zach Hyman, but I’m on board with the idea that there’s a benefit to having a speedy displacement/cycle player on a line with two elite scorers and don’t want to break that up yet), so it’s hard to call foul with those spots.
Winger role #8 is a heavily contested one. Some will defend Matt Martin’s presence there until they’re red in the face, some will tell argue that he’s bottlenecking the team’s potential by not allowing for a scoring fourth line that can feast on opponents.
I’m somewhere in the middle at this exact moment; much like Toronto has rotated fourth line centres and sixth defencemen to audition them, I wouldn’t mind a rotation on this spot dependent on the opponent they face. Specifically, I’d be using Leivo against the high event, high scoring teams, ones that don’t have a reputation for aggression, and ones that are in the second half of back-to-backs. Martin’s ability to limit trouble and hold the clock in hectic games would get him the edge the opposite situations; the slower teams that he can dictate the pace of, the ones that dress enforcers, and Toronto’s second half of back-to-backs. Anything that doesn’t fit those parameters would be decided on a case-by-case basis. This week would be a great theoretical example: Martin’s game suits an opponent like the Kings and it showed when he was focused on the play, and a game like tonight, against a fast, skilled Hurricanes team that hasn’t had a regular fight in eight and a half months, would’ve been a Leivo night.
Alas, that’s not what’s happening, nor is it what’s going to happen. Whether you’re with him or against him on the decision, Mike Babcock sees Martin as an every-game player and what he brings as an every-game necessity. Leivo, as such, only has one way into the lineup, and that’s injuries to scoring wingers, leaving him chomping at the bit for an opportunity. To his credit, Leivo has been a consummate professional about the process, something that Babcock pointed out yesterday and Leivo had no trouble showing:
“I’ve been playing for long enough, so I know my skill set,” said Leivo, a 2011 third-round pick who has played 41 NHL games in the past four seasons, including 13 last year. “It’s the conditioning that has to stay the same.
“I did this last year and made the most of it. Whatever the coaching staff wants me to do, I’m ready to do it.” [via Toronto Star]
The optimistic, hard-working attitude is really impressive for a player in his situation. We’re talking about a player who, thanks to a lack of waiver exemption and differences in roster philosophy, played barely a fifth of a season despite excellent play. A player that proved his merit enough to be kept away from the Vegas Golden Knights in this summer’s expansion draft, but enough to avoid getting stuffed into purgatory again. Many in his shoes would be flipping tables right now, but not him.
Part of that might have to do with his contract status offering him a light at the end of the tunnel. This is a contract year for Leivo, which would make you think that he’d be even more eager to play to show his worth, but there’s a caveat. Leivo turns 25 in June, and currently, has 41 games under his belt. Should he appear in 38 or fewer games over the course of this season, he’ll have the chance to become a Group VI Free Agent in July, essentially cutting the line to unrestricted free agency.
If he truly believes in his ability to produce even at two-thirds of the clip he did last year, that might be a more beneficial route for him than playing a full year in Toronto. The question becomes; is an 82-game, 40 point RFA more valuable than 20 game, 13-14 point one? Without contract status, the former is the safer bet, but a bidding war likely reaps more reward than a team that has leverage over you. If I’m in Leivo’s shoes, I honestly don’t know which I want more, the reps on the local team or the ability to cash out if I have another short burst in a limited role; the latter is certainly enticing when you haven’t had your first major payday.
Either way, it’s something that Toronto might have to be mindful of as the season progresses. Injuries will come, but betting on at least one of the Top-9 forwards to be injured for 50% of the games down the stretch might be a risk, especially if Leivo himself goes down as you try to inch him over the line. Or, you can lose him for nothing in July, which is the type of move that can be written off as a champagne problem in the moment but starts to sting in later years when you have to move on from others and the reserve pile starts to empty and lessen.
For now, though, the focus is tonight. Personally, I hope he gets Game 1 in today; while Van Riemsdyk has been off to another excellent start to the year, there’s no use risking making a tweak worse when you have a capable, eager player willing to fill in. Better safe than sorry, and it gets the ball rolling on a slow climb for one of your assets.
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