With William Nylander back in the fold, the Toronto Maple Leafs were faced with a decision. Up against the 23-man roster limit, the team needed to shed a player from the roster. In a fortunate-yet-unfortunate case of second-overall Champagne Problems, the team didn’t have a clear, obvious struggling fringe player to fire into the sun, meaning any decision was going to be a heavy one.
This afternoon, they leaned in, sending Josh Leivo to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Michael Carcone.
Let’s start with Leivo, who is heading from Toronto to Vancouver as the most NHL-ready piece of this deal. The 25-year-old was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 2011, and for years, it seemed like they had a model player in mind for him in Joffrey Lupul, who at the time was all of the JL-initialled, heart-on-his-sleeve, heavy-shot, fearless forecheck, slightly tanned Canadian talent that the Leafs wanted Leivo to become, with none of the personal issues and infinite injuries they wanted him to avoid.
For years, a bit, it didn’t look like Leivo would ever get there, but in 2015/16, he exploded for 60 points in 65 regular season games with the Marlies, most often linking up with William Nylander and Zach Hyman. He was part of the group that came up towards of the regular season, and all seemed well for his future as he scored five goals in those 12 trial games.
The expiry of his waiver-exemption led fo the Leafs being his only safe option in the organization, and unfortunately for him, Mike Babcock saw him as just out of the lineup, barring injury. Even more unfortunately for him, the Leafs stayed spectacularly healthy, and he played just 13 games, scoring 10 points in that time. To make matters worse, it happened again last year, and he only ended up suiting up 16 times.
This year, Leivo has had more opportunities afforded to him, in large part due to Nylander’s absence. The minutes still haven’t been there, though, as even with powerplay time, he’s averaged under 11 minutes a night over 27 games, picking up six points in the process. His most common linemates have been Tyler Ennis and Frederik Gauthier; the latter being a noted point non-producer, and the former working towards rehabbing his body and his game.
Josh Leivo is a player that makes good things happen on the ice, and can help good players see out their big plays. He’s a player that has a very good shot that can clean up plays in front of the net. He works hard along the boards, he has decent vision, and while he’s not going to win a Selke any time soon, his defensive results have been good over the years. In my ideal scenario, the play for the Leafs here wasn’t to move Leivo to another team, but to the left wing of Auston Matthews and William Nylander, to be displacement forward that replaces Zach Hyman after his move to the Tavares/Marner line. Someone who could win similar battles, but also pick up a few extra points after the puck is retrieved.
That won’t happen in Toronto, but might be possible in Vancouver. There is already some talk of Leivo playing in their Top 6, though most of it seems focused on pairing him with Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen. I’d like to see him with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, personally; it would give Pettersson another outlet and keep both players away from the boards, which seems to be something Vancouver is mindful of given Boeser’s back injury last year and Pettersson’s concussion this year.
The Leafs’ goal from this trade seemd to be acquiring a player that could play for the Marlies without waivers, be it through exemption or having already cleared. I joked about getting Brendan Leipsic back this morning (who, by the way, the Canucks should not have waived; I like him over Schaller and Motte), but the Los Angeles Kings claimed him off waivers.
Instead, Toronto gets back Michael Carcone. Carcone is a local boy, who went undrafted and was signed by the Canucks after an 89 point season in the QMJHL with Drummondville. For the past three years, he’s played for the Utica Comets, and with each season, he’s gotten better and better. The 22-year old winger has put up 17 points in 20 games so far this year, including a goal and an assist in two games against the Toronto Marlies in October.
Of 167 Age-22 wingers to play 20+ in the AHL in the past five seasons, Carcone’s 0.85 points per game pace ranks 16th, and his primary point-per-game pace ranks 14th. Should it keep up, that’s a pretty good reflection of a future NHLer, even if he’s a plug-and-play, auxillary fourth line type addition.
Carcone, who sits at the upper end of the market inefficency meme height of 5’9-5’10, is a quick-footed winger who isn’t afraid to go into dirty areas and play a tougher game if he has to. This is great for the Marlies, who have been trying to round themselves into a proper four-line team over the past few weeks, but seemed to be missing definitive pieces on the fourth line’s wings. This trade, along with the departure of Andrew Nielsen in exchange Morgan Klimchuk last week, gives Colin Greening two young, capable two-way flanks to do work with.
Once you account for teammates, opponents, score, and zone deployment, Josh Leivo has looked extremely good for Toronto. pic.twitter.com/gzLc6mCvMn
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) December 3, 2018
With every trade, comes a debate about who won the deal. Obviously, there are layers of circumstances to this one that complicates things, but let’s be upfront first and foremost:
The Toronto Maple Leafs got worse with this trade and gave up the better player, who has for years deserved better than what he’s been given. Leivo has been nothing but an excellent soldier for the team, working his tail off to try to get into the everyday lineup. When he’s played, he’s put up solid to excellent numbers, he’s driven play, and he’s developed a style that works anywhere in the lineup.
The fact that the Leafs are making this move is a concession where a team played to their position of weakness. Carcone is a fine supplementary prospect to have, who will make the Marlies better and could eventually become about as Leivo’s low-end usage, but it isn’t without the realm of possibility that Toronto has traded a soon-to-be Top Six forward for a guy who will find victory if he makes the NHL.
Part of this is Kyle Dubas and Leafs management picking a battle. No braintrust ever fully sees eye to eye, and there will be times when certain people win their arguments over others. It’s become pretty evident over these past three and a half seasons that no one was going to talk Mike Babcock into liking Josh Leivo – it took forever for the games to get there, and now that the games were there, the deployment still wasn’t. For better or worse, a proper Leivo experiment was never going to happen.
So do you keep fighting it? Do you move a Frederik Gauthier or a Tyler Ennis, knowing you’ll get frustration? Do you send down Igor Ozhiganov, risking the same frustration from him looking back towards Europe in the process? Do you waive Martin Marincin or Justin Holl, if you like those guys and know that you want a home for them too eventually?
It makes sense to bite the bullet here. Maybe, for example, that makes it easier in a few months when you say that you’re making a roster move that gets another one of your guys in the lineup, reminding the coaches that they won the Leivo battle. If Leivo succeeds elsewhere, you know that he wouldn’t have been put in that spot here, and you can point to that as a reason for more trust. In a way, the real move here is probably more political than it is a hockey move.
But make no mistake, it’s a move that required a concession. It’s one that required an underwhelming hockey trade. It’s less underwhelming that one would expect, in that they got someone useful and with potential, but its still not “enough” for what we think Leivo could end up being, should Vancouver be more open-minded to him.
Overall, it’s hard to fret, because Leivo was always going to be an accessory piece on this team, because William Nylander is back, and because this might be a precursor to a more optimal decision down the line. But I think the Canucks will be happier in the long run with how this shook out, and how they got to take advantage of being in the right place in the right time. They got a good hockey player.
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