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2017 Top 25 Under 25: Josh Leivo is back for one last time at #9

Next year will seem odd without the man who has been on every list so far.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs

Josh Leivo really has been on every T25U25 list we’ve ever done.

  • January 2012: 21
  • Summer 2012: 18
  • 2013: 9
  • 2014: 8
  • 2015: 15
  • 2016: 18

So, looking at that, you’d expect him to drop off the list this year, or fall to the low twenties or something, and yet here we are, back up in the top ten again.

A few people had him ranked lower than top 10, and he’s sitting atop a tight tier of players who are just outside the sure things. In our post on past lists, we talked about the dividing line between NHLer and prospect who won’t make it and how that has changed from year to year. Leivo is at that line this year.

The question is, as has always been with him: Is he on the NHL side of the line? We’ve obviously wavered over the years going from yes to no and back again.

Clark was very on point when he opened his discussion of Leivo back in 2012 this way:

One of the challenges with this exercise is weighing current accomplishments against future potential. When you have a collection of young players between the ages of 18 and 24, some still developing in amateur leagues, others transitioning from one professional league to another, it makes comparing apples to apples exceedingly difficult. An older player might be obviously a better hockey player than a younger one, but the younger one might possess the potential to be a more important player to the organization, provided they get there. Creating a list of the Top 25 players under the age of 25 requires balancing the short-term "Who's better right now?" with a bit of analysis "Who will be better down the road?"

At that point, the voters were betting, not very heavily, on Leivo’s potential in ranking him six months out of the draft at 21st.

That summer, with another full OHL season in the bag for Leivo, Clark discussed his age at the draft and how that should affect how we look at him, as the voters placed him a little higher. This is one of many ways we have tried to decide where Leivo fits.

The theory was that by selecting individuals who were a few months younger than their peers it would give them more time to develop into professional players. By drafting younger players, they might also find a couple of "late bloomers" who, having been exposed to higher levels of competition at a younger age, would be able to take big steps forward in small periods of time as they physically and emotionally matured.

The next year, 2013, when Leivo was 20 and on the cusp of joining the Marlies, the voters were saying yes, he is an NHLer. Sort of.

[T]he Leafs traded their first-round pick in 2007, 2009 and 2010. In 2008 and 2012 they drafted defenceman with fifth overall picks (Luke Schenn, one of those players, was of course dealt in exchange for JVR). In 2011 the team held two first-round picks but took another defenceman and Tyler Biggs, who we don't beleive has that upside. The 2013 first round pick, Frederik Gauthier, projects as more of a two-way forward. Only Nazem Kadri has been developed from inside the organization.

His high ranking was much more of a ‘there’s no one ahead of him’ ranking, a theme that has cropped up in this year’s list with some new prospects who seem to have a clear path to the NHL. Perhaps looking at Leivo might put that idea in perspective.

Leivo played on the Marlies in 2013-2014 and showed good, but not excellent, results. In 2014, he moved up one spot in the T25:

We're into the best players under 25 the Leafs have to offer, and moving up becomes a much trickier proposition. We know the last eight players quite well, we know their strengths, we know their weaknesses, and we have a pretty good idea of what they'll be.

So as of right now, it's still Josh Leivo, the Leafs 3rd round pick in 2011, that sits at the bottom of the next group on our countdown. But the gap is closing.

As a ‘yes he can make the NHL’ ranking, that’s a really tepid endorsement. Another year on the Marlies with a cup of coffee’s worth of games in the NHL followed, and his AHL production declined. So did his ranking in 2015.

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.

Last summer he slid a little more to 18 following a 2015-16 season with a tepid bounce back on the Marlies and 12 games in the NHL where voters didn’t buy his five goals as demonstrative of his ability.

Leivo might be a perfect test case of balancing potential with NHL-readiness. He's been knocking on the NHL's door for a couple of years now, but his long stay on the threshold has thrown his potential into some question.

It's hard not to get the feeling our panel was tired of talking about Leivo, simply because it's all been said in years before. Unlike other prospects whom we internally discussed to death, there was a definite sense of "him again?" with Josh.

And here we are again. The swoop down and then up in rankings could be a reflection of the switch from viewing him as a prospect who can improve, to viewing him for what he is. He hasn’t got potential anymore; he’s done what he can do. And our voters this year thought of him as a NHL-capable player who is not good enough to take anyone’s roster spot outright.

He is the classic tweener, the AAAA player, goes the too-well-trodden cliché. The odd thing about Leivo is that’s not really true. His play at the AHL level is not really very impressive. He was indifferently bad in his conditioning stint on the Marlies last year, and his performance in the AHL has remained constant from his debut to now. He is now what he was at 20, and he remains if nothing else, an argument against assuming developmental growth always occurs.

Josh Leivo via Elite Prospects

Season Team League GP G A TP PIM Playoffs GP G A TP PIM
Season Team League GP G A TP PIM Playoffs GP G A TP PIM
2008-2009 Barrie Colts Minor Midget AAA ETAMMHL 71 31 35 66 65
Barrie Colts Minor Midget AAA OHL Cup 4 1 1 2 0
2009-2010 Barrie Colts Midget AAA ETAHL 52 21 41 62 59
2010-2011 Sudbury Wolves OHL 64 13 17 30 37 Playoffs 8 6 7 13 4
2011-2012 Sudbury Wolves OHL 66 32 41 73 61 Playoffs 4 2 1 3 6
Toronto Marlies AHL 1 0 0 0 0
2012-2013 Sudbury Wolves JCWC 6 6 5 11 2
Sudbury Wolves OHL 34 19 25 44 34
OHL All-Stars Jr Super Series 2 0 0 0 0
Kitchener Rangers OHL 29 10 19 29 18 Playoffs 10 3 9 12 8
Toronto Marlies AHL 4 0 2 2 2 Playoffs 3 0 1 1 0
2013-2014 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 7 1 1 2 0
Toronto Marlies AHL 59 23 19 42 27 Playoffs 12 3 5 8 2
2014-2015 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 9 1 0 1 4
Toronto Marlies AHL 51 11 21 32 44 Playoffs 5 1 5 6 0
2015-2016 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 12 5 0 5 6
Toronto Marlies AHL 51 17 31 48 14 Playoffs 15 4 8 12 12
2016-2017 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 13 2 8 10 4
Toronto Marlies AHL 5 0 0 0 6
2017-2018 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL - - - - -

And yet with last year’s games added to his previous three cups of coffee, he’s got 41 games played in the NHL. His results include a very high Corsi number, some goals from one high shooting percentage year, some assists from last season, and all of that makes him look like he plays NHL hockey better than he does in the AHL.

He’s not a very fast skater and had trouble in the 2015-2016 season keeping up with linemate Joffrey Lupul. He had a very high shooting percentage that year in a very few games, but aside from that bit of luck, he added little to the team.

His personal shot location last season was good, but not excellent — he favours the high slot, not in close. Overall the shot locations with him on the ice last season looks very good, and that should count in his favour somewhat, but it is only 135 minutes of five-on-five time.

We should also remember that he played with Nazem Kadri more than he did Ben Smith. His fourth line play was very good defensively, and offensively negligible to okay, but his time with Kadri was a high event festival of shots everywhere unless Leo Komarov was on the ice with them. So that defensive play did not carry over to his higher line usage, and the offence he showed with Kadri didn’t carry over to his fourth line time.

All of which is a round about way of saying he’s not driving any line he’s on, but he has a good basic skill set that makes him a playable NHLer in a utility role.

And still, I look at my ranking and think I should have moved him down more.

When the whole list is out, we can dig into what our votes reveal in a more in depth way, but it’s not giving much away to say that the gap between Leivo and Dermott, Johnsson and Grundström is not large. You can consider them nearly tied. But the gap between Leivo and number eight is both steeper in terms of votes and in terms of player quality. The gap between the AHL and the NHL is contained in that space, and I’m not convinced Leivo ever will cross it.

So in that sense, even though this is a higher ranking than he’s had in a long time, it’s not a big improvement. He has one more training camp to earn a spot on the team rather than the press box, and then if he doesn’t, well, 24 is when you’ve either made it or washed out for good. Either way, he won’t be on our list next summer.