VANCOUVER – Josh Leivo moved on from Mike Babcock long before the Toronto Maple Leafs did. The mental separation came after the physical one.
Just over a year ago, Leivo was still stuck on the fourth line in Toronto, playing for a coach who didn’t want him and wondering where his NHL career was going.
Then Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas moved Leivo to the Canucks, and the winger met a new coach, Travis Green.
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And what did this do for Leivo?
“It saved my career,” he told Sportsnet earlier this season. “Being there wasn’t good; it was a toxic environment for me. Getting out of there and right away Greener showing trust and belief in me got me back to where I knew I could be.
“I had some low days, but I got past that. I had a lot of support from my family and friends, and being close to home (near Barrie, Ont.) obviously helped a bit. If I was far away and by myself, it would have been a different story. But I got a lot of help with that and I got through it.”
More has changed for Leivo since the trade to Vancouver last Dec. 3 than has changed for the Leafs, even with the firing of Babcock by Dubas three weeks ago.
Leivo’s ice time spiked by more than 50 per cent after the trade for second-tier minor-leaguer Michael Carcone. He went from the fourth line in Toronto to the first line in Vancouver, averaging 15:57 of ice time while playing mostly alongside young Canucks stars Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
Leivo had 10 goals and 18 points in 49 games after the trade and showed enough that Canucks general manager Jim Benning re-signed the 26-year-old to a one-year, $1.5-million contract for this season.
The Canucks’ improvement, which included adding top-line winger J.T. Miller in the summer, has bumped Leivo down to a middle-six role for which he is well-suited. But he has been equally effective so far in his second season in Vancouver: six goals and 16 points in 30 games, with a shots-for percentage of 54.33 and average ice time of 14:58.
In even-strength scoring, Leivo’s 13 points put him just behind Bo Horvat (14) and Boeser (15).
“I think I’ve always been a good player and I think I always believed in my game,” he said. “As a professional athlete, you have to believe in that or else it can go (away) quick. So I’ve always believed in myself.”
On Monday, after the Canucks practised before the Maple Leafs ahead of Tuesday’s game at Rogers Arena, Leivo added: “I think every league I’ve played in, I’ve kind of shown that I could produce. I wasn’t given the opportunity (in Toronto), but there were a lot of things going on there. They had new faces, a lot of skill coming in with the draft picks they got. I just missed an opportunity with that team and I was fortunate enough to get it on this team.”
That feeling of gratitude on the Canucks is mutual.
Only now in his second full NHL season, Leivo is still learning to bring intensity and engagement to every game. But his combination of skill, size and versatility has made him important in a supporting role.
The Leafs’ third-round pick from the 2011 NHL Draft is part of the Canucks’ large group of heavy, mobile forwards capable of wearing down opponents physically while contributing secondary scoring.
Leivo is better than the Canucks thought he would be.
“Probably, yeah,” Green said Monday. “Whenever you trade for a player, you’re not quite sure what you’re getting, especially in that situation where he hadn’t played a lot in the NHL yet. We had seen him a bit in the minors. We hoped a fresh start and maybe a better opportunity with a team that wasn’t quite as good as the team he was on. …you always hope in those situations that a player will take off.
“When he’s on his game, he’s a big body that can skate, that can be strong on the puck, that can win a puck battle and make a play. Those are guys that you need. When he’s a consistent player and plays that way, he’s very effective.”
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Leivo scored twice in the Canucks’ 6-5 win Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres while playing on the third line beside Adam Gaudette and Jake Virtanen.
“Just be ready for whatever line I can play on,” he said. “I was not in the best situation in Toronto; that’s where I think I learned to always be ready. We’ve got a good team here. Every guy is willing to play the same style. Any line has been good.”
Questioned Monday by reporters from Toronto and Vancouver, Leivo stickhandled away from the topic of Babcock, who since his firing has been outed by Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner and former Detroit Red Wings’ Johan Franzen for mentally-abusive “mind games.”
“I’ve kind of moved on from that,” Leivo said. “No more comments on that one. I’m trying to move forward and focus on the Canucks now.”
Originally published at https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/trade-canucks-maple-leafs-saved-josh-leivos-career/