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There was always something to suggest there’s more to Josh Leivo.
“Obviously, he was one of the guys we had to watch every time we played him in junior and when I was out there, it was my job to shut him down,” Bo Horvat recalled of matching OHL wits with the winger.
“He’s a great player. His talents weren’t appreciated in Toronto as they should have been and for him to come here and a have a breakout second half, he proved to a lot of people and to himself that he can be a good player in this league.”
The versatile Vancouver Canucks forward put up credible numbers in junior and the minors with 32- and 23-goal seasons respectively, but in six seasons in the Maple Leafs’ organization, he learned that Randy Carlyle preferred to play veterans and that Mike Babcock demanded you be as good without the puck as you think you are with it.
It came with a fourth-line role that offered little security and would prove a silver lining.
When William Nylander ended his prolonged contract holdout Dec. 1 to beat the NHL restricted free-agent signing deadline, it also ended Leivo’s longest lineup presence with 27 games. It prompted a trade to the Canucks just two days later for minor-league forward Michael Carcone and the returns here are encouraging.
Leivo has 10 goals in 47 games since the swap — he had 14 goals in 84 career games with the Leafs — and being instantly aligned with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser was by design. Leivo always had a heavy and accurate shot and is good with the puck in traffic. In his first game, he took a slick cross-ice feed from Pettersson and rang a shot off the post and past Devan Dubnyk just seven minutes into his Canucks debut.
Aside from the trio’s offensive potential, defensive diligence, puck retrieval and getting out of their own zone was going to be a problem. Leivo’s bottom-six experience with Babcock helped.
“He was very serious about the defensive game and sticking to his systems,” said Leivo. “My shot was always there but the skating wasn’t and I’ve been working on that the last five years. The hands have kind of been there and the hockey sense has always been there, so it’s just the love of the game and trying to figure it out.”
Travis Green harps on having players he can win with because the Canucks’ coach knows his club can’t take the next development step with one-dimensional players who only know one end of the ice. Leivo leads the Canucks with a plus-six rating in 13:52 of average ice time.
“You learn that you don’t want to make mistakes because you’re in and out of the lineup and in my situation in Toronto, I was always out,” said the 25-year-old Leivo, a third-round 2011 draft pick by the Leafs.
“I had to take care of the defensive part and trust that my skill and offensive abilities would just come. When I came here I knew I could bring that defensive side and make that first impression look good. And my defensive game is getting stronger and I keep sticking with it.”
Leivo is one of the club’s five restricted free-agent forwards. What works for the 6-2, 192-pound Innisfil, Ont. native for a contract extension is the ability to play both wings, play up and down the lineup and be effective on the power play as the slot presence.
“He has been good for us,” said Green. “He’s getting an opportunity he hasn’t had in the NHL and he has proven that he can play. Now, it will be up to him to see where he can play and how long and how many minutes.
“The big thing with him is to make sure he’s on every game and every shift, which is nothing more than we ask of any of our players. He’s smart, has got good hands, can skate and he’s big.”
Amid uncertainty how the left side will evolve next season — Antoine Roussel is out a minimum six months after anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery last week, Sven Baertschi has a concussion history, Ryan Spooner and Tim Schaller haven’t shown much and RFA Nikolay Goldobin looks down here — Leivo will be of even more value, regardless of what the club may or may not do in free agency.
Leivo’s expiring contract pays US$925,000 and he does have arbitration rights. He could play the versatility card, but a genuine opportunity here to solidify his career probably makes the possibility of rocking the extension boat moot.
“I think I’ve developed into a top-six forward,” said Leivo. “Maybe the point totals haven’t been what I expected (24 points in 73 games this season) but I’ve contributed a lot. And as a group, we’ve connected a little bit more and the bond is getting strong for next year.
“And really, it’s my first full NHL season and from that, I’ve developed into a pretty solid forward and I’m excited to get back next year and start another playoff push.”
Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators
5 p.m., Bridgestone Arena
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