After it felt like the Canucks were going to just sit and watch as half their team left this off-season, GM Jim Benning has finally made his first move as he acquired defensemen Nate Schmidt for a third round selection in 2022.
Schmidt is a solid top-four defenceman who fits a huge need for the Canucks on the right side of the blueline. Benning took advantage of the cap hell that the Golden Knights put themselves in after signing premier free agent Alex Pietrangelo and managed to steal a good player for a very cheap price.
With the Canucks top four defensemen now pretty much set, the focus has to move to the forwards. The loss of Tyler Toffoli means that the Canucks have a gaping hole in their top-six.
When news broke that Toffoli signed with the Montreal Canadiens for an AAV of $4.25 million over four years, fans were frustrated as it seemed like a reasonable amount for a players who scored at a point-per-game pace in his brief Canucks career.
Toffoli: I thought I was going to continue my career with Vancouver. It's frustrating but its the way things are going right now.#Canucks— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) October 13, 2020
Frustration has only grown as today Toffoli made numerous comments about how he thought he was going to be staying in Vancouver but a deal never came to fruition. Even if management’s focus was on revamping the weak defence core before looking at the more robust forward group, the lack of asset management skills and the ability to multitask shown by Benning is troubling.
Tyler Toffoli (4x4.25m with Montreal) is an extremely strong all-around forward. Good defensively, tremendous driving offence at 5v5 and 5v4, good shooting efficiency. pic.twitter.com/PyjAItZ6Yi— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) October 12, 2020
$4.25 million is a very reasonable contract for a player that brings the level of offensive production that Toffoli does. Of course, this is all in the past now and instead of dwelling over how the Canucks could have managed to re-sign Toffoli, the focus needs to be on who can replace him.
There are a couple interesting UFAs possibilities (Anthony Duclair?) but most of the ones available at this point either have some type of red flag or carry a degree of risk you would probably not be comfortable with as a cap-strapped team. Instead, part of the solution to finding this production could lie with one of the team’s current unsigned, unrestricted free agents: Josh Leivo.
The Leivo Solution?
In December of 2018, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Josh Leivo to the Vancouver Canucks for Michael Carcone. Leivo was the odd man out in the Maple Leaf’s strong forward group and the team did him a favour by trading him to a team where he could see some ice-time.
Leivo would play 49 games with the Canucks during the rest of that season and another 36 this year before his season was cut short due to injury. Despite being 27 years old, he has never been in an NHL situation where he has gotten to experience any real sense of continuity. Instead, his seasons have been truncated by trades and injuries.
Still, Leivo has been a solid player for the Canucks and when we take into account his underlying advanced stats and combine that with what he have seen on the ice, it becomes clear that he is the type of player the Canucks could use.
Leivo is a skilled player that possesses strong hands as well as a sneaky strong shot. He can provide a secondary scoring punch as a middle-six winger. Take a look at the silky-smooth move he puts on Jordan Binnington to win this game against St. Louis in October of 2019.
Besides the visual displays of skill that we see Leivo pull off, we can look at the numbers to see that Leivo is a strong driver of play and offensive weapon. During his 49 game stint with the team in 2018-19, Leivo played 621:01 minutes of 5-on-5 time. In this time Leivo had a Corsi-For percentage of 54.12%, a total that puts him in the upper echelon of forwards who played more than 500 minutes that season.
Leivo’s elite CF% for that time period becomes even more impressive when you look at how the Canucks have consistently been under 50% as a team in recent times. In fact, Leivo had a relative CF% (adjusted to be relative to the team) of 7.61% in 2018-19, the best number of any player who played at least 10 games for the team.
While these numbers do portray a player that can drive possession and contribute to winning hockey, it’s important to caveat them with some other facts. For example, Leivo played sheltered minutes during this time period as he started just shy of 70% of his shifts in the offensive zone.
In 2019-20, he played 451:55 minutes of 5-on-5 time for the Canucks and he proved that his impressive numbers were no fluke. His relative CF% of 3.29 put him sixth on the team behind studs such as Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, and Tyler Toffoli.
He continues to be an elite driver of play and this year coach Travis Green must have had more trust in his defensive abilities as Leivo’s offensive zone start percentage fell to 55.56%. Leivo’s ability to continue to control possession at such a strong rate during less sheltered minutes make him a very valuable asset.
The Next Step
Leivo’s previous cap hit was $1.5 million and the Canucks may be able to get away with another steal of a deal considering the fact that Leivo is coming off a big injury and the new financial reality that COVID-19 has created.
The Canucks are going to need to find production in cost-effective ways and one of the best options may be right under their nose. It seems as if Leivo is interested in returning to the Canucks, but can the team clear cap space for this seemingly easy contract?
On UFA Josh Leivo: teams have reached out, but he's keeping his options open at the moment.— Randip Janda (@RandipJanda) October 13, 2020
Curious to see if VAN keeps him in the picture. He loved his time with the #Canucks
Leivo has proven that he can be an elite play driver as well as a dangerous offensive weapon in the Canucks middle-six. Through a couple bargains like Leivo, the team may be able to replace Toffoli by committee. Even if the team finds another option to fill that top-six spot it doesn't mean that Leivo should be passed over since he’s the kind of player you can plug anywhere in your line-up.
The Canucks are squeezed right up against the salary cap and asset management will be crucial now more than ever. Passing up an asset that can produce at such a low cost is not something the club can afford at this time.