TORONTO – Josh Leivo wants to be a Toronto Maple Leaf. He also wants to actually play hockey.
After a season and a half of not doing much of the latter, Leivo has put the Leafs on notice: either put him in the lineup or let him go to a team that will.
“I just want to play hockey,” Leivo said after the morning skate on Monday. “I do want to play for the Maple Leafs, that’s why I signed [a one-year contract extension in November]. But at the same point I just want to play, right?”
Reports first surfaced on Saturday that Leivo had informed the Leafs he wanted out of the organization if they weren’t willing to play him. His agent, Ian Pulver, released a statement to media on the subject Sunday night.
Since Toronto drafted the Innisfil, Ont., native in the third round, 86th overall, in 2011, he’s worked his way from a Marlies’ standout to into the Leafs’ fold, but never for very long. After brief stints in the NHL from 2013-15, Leivo has been with the Leafs’ full-time since last season.
Since the start of 2015-16, Leivo has suited up in just 25 of 136 regular-season games, posting three goals and 10 assists.
In all that time, he’s been a fill-in, a substitute for the sick or injured. No matter how well he’s performed, Leivo hasn’t earned the opportunity of a longer look and doesn’t know whether he ever will.
“I’m not sure yet,” Leivo said when asked if he thinks he’ll have to go elsewhere to play. “I’m sure you guys will figure that out in the future.”
Despite their lengthy holding pattern with Leivo, the Leafs have taken pains to make sure he can’t go anywhere. Leivo was one of seven forwards they protected in June’s expansion draft. No longer exempt from waivers, Leivo's been in a holding pattern as Toronto's 13th forward so no other team can poach him while he waits for a top-12 opening. At times the Leafs have even skated the winger on defence in practices or morning skates.
So when Leivo agreed to a one-year, $925,000 deal in November, it was a show of good faith by both sides about their commitment to the organization. But whatever effect Leivo hoped that might have on personnel decisions has so far proved fruitless.
While Kasperi Kapanen was recalled from the AHL two weeks ago to take over a winger spot from veteran Matt Martin, Leivo has played in just 12 games this season as a substitute and been sitting since Dec. 31.
“I still want to be here, I still want to play,” Leivo reiterated. “I just have to get in the lineup. [Twenty-five] games in two years is not enough, and hopefully I can get in with the team and help them win, but I just need to get in.”
The frustration Leivo feels over that not happening hasn't seeped into his relationship with teammates, though. In fact, most praise Leivo for his infectious positivity, even while his unhappiness over ice time was bubbling over with the team's front office.
“Josh is the same way; I haven’t noticed anything different,” said Zach Hyman. “He’s coming to the rink with a positive attitude, same way he’s been since the beginning of the year, and same way he did last year. He has done an unbelievable job of staying positive and just being a good team guy and a good teammate. He has a great skill set and he knows that, so it’s tough when you’re not playing.”
With 171 AHL games to his credit, Leivo said he wouldn’t be open to a conditioning stint at this point. Leivo will be 25 in May, and knows the clock is ticking on his opportunity to take hold of an NHL spot.
Mike Babcock has repeatedly cited a “lack of opportunity” for Leivo in the Leafs’ lineup, and while he’s willing to put in the work to get his chance, Leivo still needs for there to actually be a spot available to him.
“We know we’re deep, so I just have to keep working and wait for the opportunity. It’s a tough lineup to crack, but I just have to keep working,” he said. “When you have a good team here, good group of guys, we all get along and they help you get through it. They keep you positive and keep you going. But at the same time, you want to play at some point and get in the lineup.”