Bruce Bennett - Getty Images
Nineteen year old Leafs prospects drafted in 2011 should be able to display significant strides in the OHL during the 2012-13 season
Tyler Biggs was the first selection by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft - going 22nd overall in the first round. Josh Leivo was a relatively unheralded prospect the Leafs selected in the third round of the same draft 86th overall.
Biggs has been dogged by criticism of his offensive game consistently since being drafted, while Leivo has quietly made large strides forward in his offensive game, finishing in the top 35 players for OHL point per game production last year amongst those under the age of 20. That ranking places Leivo just behind much more highly touted prospects Gregg Mckegg, Matt Puempel and Austin Watson, and just ahead of the likes of Radek Faksa and Sam Carrick.
Biggs is a 6'3" 225 lb behemoth of a RW, while Leivo is a bit more wiry at 6'2" and 185 lbs and plays LW. Biggs game is prone to be more focused on "truculent" aspects like forechecking and grinding down low and in front of the net, but Leivo's toughness often goes unmentioned - despite only having 4 fights on his card on hockeyfights.com, he has made a good showing of himself when called upon and solidly stands up for team-mates when necessary. Leivo may not drop the gloves frequently, but he can take care of himself.
Unfortunately for Brian Burke and many of the lunch bucket fans, fighting and checking doesn't win as many games as they would like. Skill is more of a premium quality than physicality, and this is where concerns around Biggs' offensive game begin to crop up. So far in his NCAA and US NTDP seasons he has produced semi-respectable numbers, but not to the level one typically anticipates from a 1st round selection.
For instance, last season in the NCAA with the University of Miami (Ohio) Redhawks - in a rebuilding year - he finished tied for 11th amongst players 18 or younger in point per game production with 9 goals and 17 points in 37 games, for 0.46 ppg. Admittedly, 4 of the players ranked ahead of him were D men, so he ranked 8th amongst forwards.
Often cast in the light of budding power forward by scouts and development gurus, Biggs could be compared to the likes of Keith Tkachuk, who was similarly drafted in the 1st round by the Winnipeg Jets back in 1990, 19th overall. In Tkachuk's only season of NCAA hockey, as an 18 year old at Boston College, he produced 17 goals and 40 points in only 37 games. That ranked him 2nd amongst players under 19 years of age with 1.11 PPG.
More recently Biggs' early numbers could be compared to the likes of David Backes who was drafted 62nd overall in the 2nd round of the 2003 draft by St. Louis. He too was fairly dominant in his first season of NCAA hockey, producing 16 goals and 37 points in 39 games for Minnesota State University (Mankato), admittedly as a 19 year old.
A quality rookie 18 year old in that same 2003-04 NCAA season would be Drew Stafford who was drafted 13th overall by the Buffalo Sabres. He produced 11 goals and 32 points in 36 games for the University of North Dakota - skating alongside the likes of Brendan Bochenski and Zach Parise... so take that production with a grain of salt.
Biggs lacked the offensive game to drive play on his own in the NCAA. This season playing alongside the likes of established OHL veterans such as Oshawa Generals captain Boone Jenner and alternate Lucas Lessio will push Biggs' production to a higher level hopefully.
Both Jenner and Lessio were ironically selected after Biggs, 37th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets and 56th overall by the Phoenix Coyotes, both in the 2nd round respectively. Yet, thus far in the young 2012-13 season, Jenner already has 7 goals and 12 points through 5 games, leading the Generals (and the OHL) by example, while Lessio is 2nd on the team lead in goals with 5, and has 8 penalty minutes. Biggs meanwhile has 4 goals and 2 assists in the same 5 games, putting over a point per game early and helping to lead the parade to the penalty box with his 7 penalty minutes so far.
That forward trio should pose a serious threat to OHL defensive units all season long, and it's expected that Oshawa will be a contender this season. Biggs production is an important aspect of that hope though, and if he is found lacking, expect to read about it in the press (and probably here too since we like to tear down paper tigers wherever we find them).
So far this year Leivo has similarly produced an underwhelming single goal and two assists for 3 points through 5 OHL games played, but what lends hope was his pre-season play in an interesting tourney that took place in August of this year.
Leivo's Sudbury Wolves were invited to take part in the Junior Club World Cup which was first held in 2011 and is sanctioned by the IIHF. The inaugural 2011-12 tournament featured junior luminaries such as the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, alongside the junior outfits of well established European sides Red Army Moscow from Russia, the IF Malmo Redhawks of Sweden, and HK Riga of Latvia. The Americans sent a one off EJHL All-Star team to compete in the mini-tourney. Suffice it to say, the participation was perhaps less than top notch.
Initially a small tournament consisting of two pools of 4 teams playing 3 round robin games with the pool winners playing in a championship final, the tournament expanded for 2012-13. The participating teams were increased to 10, with the two pools featuring 5 teams each, and the top two teams from each pool advancing to a semi-final prior to championship and 3rd place games. This increased the number of games each team played from a minimum of 3 and maximum of 4, to a more interesting minimum of 4 and maximum of 6.
Sudbury finished second in their pool behind Linkopings HC of Sweden, while Dinamo-Shinnik Borbuisk of Belarus won the other pool ahead of the 2nd place Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL. In the semi-finals Sudbury defeated the Belarussian club 5-2, while Waterloo handed Linkopings a 5-4 shootout loss. Thus the finals saw Sudbury face down their first ever USHL opponent, coming away victorious with a 2-0 win and their first Junior Club World Cup championship. Josh Leivo scored the game and tournament winning goal and he led the tournament in scoring. In 6 games played, he produced 6 goals, 11 points, and finished with a +10 rating to lead the tournament in all three categories. Suffice it to say he had a solid tournament.
Leivo as of right now is not likely to be named to the Canadian entry to the World Junior Championships. There are only 4 forwards on the roster from the 2011 draft year, and in a year without NHL hockey, virtually every top Canadian prospect will be available for the tournament. The only way Leivo gets a chance to make the club is if he produces like crazy as the offensive leader on a Sudbury team depleted by the loss of over-agers Michael Sgarbossa and Andrei Kuchin who have gone on to play with the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL and Dizel Penza of the VHL (2nd division of Russian Hockey beneath the KHL).
Sudbury is unlikely to contend this year with their current roster, so it is quite possible that Leivo may be dealt in a trade at some point as a means of rebuilding the stock of the franchise. However his season turns out, Leivo's offensive game shows lots of promise, but he'll need to crank it up if he ever hopes to crack the ranks of the NHL.