I've made no secret of my displeasure in the Leafs recent draft and development record.
Since their watershed 2007 draft, the Maple Leafs have produced a grand total of four NHL players in the seven years since - 2008 first round pick Luke Schenn (who did not live up to unrealstic expectations and traded in 2012), 2008 second-round pick Jimmy Hayes (traded before ever playing a professional game), 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri (depending on your viewpoint, either potentially disappointing or being stifled and made a whipping boy by an inept head coach) and 2012 first-round pick Morgan Rielly (on the cusp of developing into a top-level defender in the NHL).
People have objected to that remarkably gloomy outlook on the Leafs track record, pointing to the number of picks sacrificed for various moves (to acquire the NHL talent the development system seemed incapable of, for the record) and pointing to a couple of potential prospects coming up in the system that could be counted on to break that trend.
One of those players was 2011 third-round pick Josh Leivo. Since being drafted as a late bloomer from the Sudbury Wolves, Leivo's impressed at the OHL and now AHL levels, making a case to be one of the few Leaf prospects in the system at that time that might be counted on to make that jump to the NHL level.
With two fairly successful seasons with the Toronto Marlies under his belt, including two cameos with the Maple Leafs, Leivo has arrived at a critical stage of his development where the Leafs will have to start thinking about his future with the club, and whether he's going to be capable of making that jump to the next level. The seeds of these sorts of doubts help explain why for the first time in our countdown Leivo lost ground, dropping seven places to #15.
Don't confuse Leivo's drop in the rankings with a pessimistic view of his future with the club. In limited minutes last season - under a coach that avoids playing rookies whenever possible - Leivo hardly looked out of place, and the new regime's decree that they would be keeping prospects in the AHL until they were ready for a full-time promotion precluded him from going up again later on in the season. That they included Leivo among those that they protected from the Maple Leafs speaks to the fact that they at least continue to view him as someone they needed to protect the same way they did William Nylander or Connor Brown.
But compared to the other players that were kept out of the NHL, Leivo's considerably farther along the development curve than players like Nylander (in terms of age, before that nit gets picked).
After two years in the AHL, and now age 22, if Leivo isn't going to be a full-time NHL regular in the near future then you really begin to wonder if it's ever going to happen, and if he might miss his opportunity in the overlap between the current NHL roster players they have now, and what the team believes it has coming in the near future.
We talked with Jeff Veillette, who watches the Marlies closely for PPP and theleafsnation.com, about Leivo's place in the Leafs plans.
PPP: Is Leivo a bit overlooked with all the new and exciting acquisitions playing for the Marlies?
JV: I feel that overlooked is probably not the right word to use here. Leivo had the spotlight in a depth chart that was nowhere near as good as the current one. This isn't to discount his NHL potential; Leivo has strung together a pair of very decent AHL seasons and is likely to become an occasional NHLer. Prospects with decent but not top-end upside are valuable to NHL teams who need cost-effective talent, but it's unlikely that the Leafs will be good again by the time they will get that value out of him. With all of that considered, it's not hard to overlook him for better, more long term investments.
PPP: Josh played 16 games for the Maple Leafs since 2013/14; do you think he can win a job on the Maple Leafs this season?
JV: It's a possiblity, though the sheer amount of depth signings that the Leafs have made in the past couple of months might make that difficult. Toronto is at thirteen forwards without the likes of Leivo, Matt Frattin, or Zach Hyman on the roster, which means that they likely have to make another move to free up that roster spot. A fast track to this process would be the removal of Joffrey Lupul, be it by trade or by his bi-monthly freak injury. Leivo models his game after Lupul, and could easily fit into his spot.
The Leafs made numerous additions to round out the bottom end of their lineup, which presumably serves to keep Leivo out of the NHL lineup to start.
The comparison to a player like Lupul is interesting for two reasons. One, it could be an indication that Leivo needs to be in a position to contribute offensively to be an NHLer. The second is that it could very well mean that on a lineup with players like Lupul, James van RIemsdyk and tyler Bozak - all of whom struggle on the defensive side of the puck - that the Leafs may not be able to afford another player who models his game after Leivo on the roster.
Leivo's votes are interesting for two reasons. The first, is that he represents the first player on the list that all fourteen voters agreed belonged in the Top 25 (everyone from here on in, except one person, made everyone's list).
The second is that he's also the first person that the majority of the panel agreed on a consensus ranking for, with two votes near the top 10, two votes just placing him on the list, and the remainder in the vicinity of his actual ranking of 15.
Leivo's proximity to the NHL is a big reason why he ranked so highly for me. He sits among a group of players that are either very close to the NHL but have some doubts, and another group of prospects that have legitimate buzz based on their most recent performance, but who are still some time away from being expected to contribute at the NHL level.
As we've seen with too many guys, it's hard to put too much stock in adequate results at lower levels, especially when some of those results aren't too dissimilar from where Leivo stood two years ago in his development.
On a Marlies team built around a number of exciting but raw prospects, Leivo is a steady influence with experience at the level. New head coach Sheldon Keefe will likely be able to rely on Leivo to contribute when put in a position to contribute offensively, especially if some of the other young Marlies struggle with consistency or adapting to the more physical requirements of the AHL.
If Leivo can once again show progression at the AHL level, he can put himself in a position to be one of the first to graduate from the Leafs' new look development system, and trade in a Marlies jersey for a Maple Leafs one.