When the Vancouver Canucks acquired Brendan Leipsic from the Vegas Golden Knights in a trade deadline acquisition, it hardly made headlines, save for the ticker at the bottom of TSN’s trade deadline show.
The 24-year-old winger was set to play for his fifth organization in what was only his fourth year of pro hockey. On the surface, Leipsic’s addition seemed like more of a depth move, with AHL defenceman Philip Holm going the other way.
“At this point of his career, it’s surprising that he’s on his fourth organization already but I think that just shows how highly-touted he really is,” Triston Grant, a teammate of Leipsic’s during his tenure with the Milwaukee Admirals, told CanucksArmy.
Fans would soon learn that Leipsic’s addition was not a case of the Golden Knights wanting to part ways with Leipsic — who had put up a mere 13 points through his 44 game stint with the club — but rather, a case of the Canucks wanting to add the Winnipeg native to the fold. Canucks head coach Travis Green had coached Leipsic throughout his junior career with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks and he, of all people, knew that the undersized forward possessed a great deal of talent.
“Right when I got there, Travis Green put me on a line with [Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat], an opportunity many guys would like,” Leipsic said. “It makes you feel good. I didn’t take it as pressure, I looked at it as an opportunity. Just to prove to myself that I could be an everyday-NHL-player and part of the future there.”
Surely enough, Leipsic proved just that.
Through 14 games with the Canucks, he’d go on to record nine points while logging 16:56 TOI — five more minutes of ice-time, per game, than he played in Vegas — and he even spent some time on the power play, too. Albeit a small sample size, Leipsic’s output with the Canucks was a complete 180 degree turnaround from his tenure in Vegas
“It’s a league of opportunity,” said Leipsic. “Look at Jonathan Marchessault. He had to grind it out in the minors for five years, finally gets an opportunity and grabs a hold of it. I felt like I did that a little bit in Vancouver.”
As Marchessault and plenty of Leipsic’s former Golden Knights’ teammates proved this season — the NHL is, as Leipsic said, a league of opportunity. If you don’t get the proper shot, you’re not going to perform up to your highest capabilities. But what exactly withheld Leipsic from getting that shot, before Vancouver? What compelled Nashville, Toronto and Vegas to part ways with him?
To understand that, you have to go back to his Junior days, where he oozed of potential from the day he put on a Portland Winterhawks jersey.
Selected in the fifth-round of the 2009 WHL Bantam draft by the Winterhwks, Leipsic — who was a mere 5’8, 145lbs as a 16-year-old — cracked Portland’s lineup right off the hop. Even as he played in a league where his opponents were as much as five years older than him, Leipsic played the game on edge. He was tenacious on the ice; he had no fear; he’d be involved in the corners, the scrums between whistles, and he was always one of the most active trash-talkers on the ice.
Height doesn’t measure heart.
“He was one of the most hated guys to play against, in the WHL,” Mike Johnston, Leipsic’s head coach in his first two and a half seasons with the Winterhawks, told CanucksArmy. “He could get the best players in our league off their game. He played physical. He played hard.”
Even with all the skill that he had, Leipsic knew that as an undersized player, he had to have an extra element to his game to make the show.
“You see guys like Brad Marchand and [other] small guys — the only way those guys get to the NHL is if you’re a little arrogant and if you have a little bit of swag,” said Leipsic. “I was always one of those kids that knew I could do it when I was younger. I think that’s part of the reason why I got to where I am today.”
Like Brad Marchand, Leipsic’s game wasn’t entirely revolved around his antagonizing abilities.
His offensive skill was prevalent and in his 2011-2012 campaign — his draft year — he’d score 28 goals and 58 points, which lead to the Nashville Predators selecting him 89th overall. Then, in 2012-2013, Leipsic exploded, recording a league-high 49 goals and 120 points and taking home the CHL top scorer’s award, alongside his linemate Nic Petan while playing an integral role in the Winterhawks WHL championship, and Memorial Cup birth.
Throughout his tenure in Portland, he evolved into a fan favourite.
“He gravitates towards people who come to the games,” said Nic Petan. “They want to see someone who’s different and does things different. As a smaller guy, he’s speedy and flashy and gets the job done. Obviously, he throws his body around too and he’s a pretty exciting player to watch.”
After a decorated Junior career, Leipsic would go on to turn pro. His WHL tenure meant nothing anymore, it was time for pro hockey, which separates the great from the good.
“With guys like Brendan that kind of dominate junior hockey and are expected to do really well as professionals, it’s always hit or miss,” said Grant.
While Leipsic’s stint with the Admirals — where he recorded 35 points through 47 games — was relatively positive, it wasn’t all smooth sailing from the get-go.
“I remember him driving [Admirals head coach] Dean Evason crazy. At that point, expectedly, he was really raw,” Grant said. “There was a lot of mistakes, but at the same time, there were nights where he definitely dominated on the half-wall and on the power play. It was really cool to see guys, of his stature, do that.”
But once he found his mojo, Leipsic started to take off at the AHL level, and it happened rather quickly, too. He was using his speed to create space for himself in a league that was much faster-paced than the junior ranks. His performance in the first half of the season would earn him a spot at the 2015 AHL all-star game.
And then suddenly, his days as an Admiral were done.
On February 15, 2015, Leipsic was a part of a blockbuster trade that sent him, Olli Jokinen and a first-round draft pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli. After spending four years in one place in Junior, Lepsic was traded just shy of 50 games into his pro career, and while it was initially a shock to the system, he handled it in stride.
“I think it made me better. You’re not going to stay in one place forever so might as well get it out of the way when you’re young,” said Leipsic.
Once the dust settled and the whirlwind of emotions that comes along with a player’s first trade died down, Leipsic became excited about the opportunity with the Leafs, a team that was interested in him during his draft year.
“He was obviously part of a pretty significant transaction and it wasn’t at all a matter of Nashville not wanting him. It was certainly more a matter of Toronto wanting to add him, as part of the transaction,” Leipsic’s agent Craig Oster said.
Leipsic would be joining a young and exciting Marlies team that featured the likes of Connor Brown and William Nylander. The following season, 2015-2016, Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen would join the fold. The Marlies prospect pool was starting to get crowded with young up-and-coming players, knocking on the door for NHL spots. Leipsic was right there in the mix with the Brown’s, Hyman’s Nylander’s and Kapanen’s — all of whom are on the Leafs today — and his 54 points that year placed him third in team scoring.
“The American League is different in that sense. As much as you want to win, you want to beat out the guy next to you. It’s a little different but everything’s on the ice. Guys are great off the ice and none of that stuff goes into the dressing room. Deep down, everybody’s competing — not everybody’s going to be on the Maple Leafs.”
On March 3rd, 2016, the Leafs recalled Leipsic and in his first game, against Vancouver, he potted home his first NHL goal.
He’d go on to tally three points during his six-game stint with the Leafs, and take back a great deal of confidence down with the Marlies.
The next year, the 2016-2017 season, would be arguably Leipsic’s best as a Marlie. Through 49 games, he scored at a 1.04 point per game pace and was evolving into one of the AHL’s best.
“You could tell he was an NHL player. You could tell that he was ready, last year,” Belleville Senators forward Jack Rodewald, a childhood friend of Leipsic’s, told CanucksArmy. “It’s just about finding your groove and getting a couple of bounces here and there but you could definitely tell he was an NHL player when you played against him.”
But as Leipsic started to hit another gear, so did the Leafs organization.
With the arrival of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the Leafs made a surprise push for the playoffs and from there, Leispic began to be on the outside looking in and that meant no NHL-call-up for him in the 2016-2017 season. He was passed over on recalls as he saw Connor Brown and Zach Hyman take on full-time roles with the cub, Nikita Soshnikov play 56 games with the club, and Kasperi Kapanen get into some NHL playoff action, too.
“I just kind of found my way, kind of looking on the outside. I kind of knew that in my second year and going into my third year,” said Leipsic.
While many in Brendan’s corner, including Brendan himself, will tell you that they believe he could’ve carved a role with the Leafs, if given more time — last summers expansion draft put a wrinkle in that plan.
“We were’t exactly sure what the future would hold [in Toronto] due to the plethora of young player that they had,” said Oster.
The Leafs could only protect so many of their young promising players. Unfortunately for Leipsic, he was the odd man out and Toronto left him unprotected, and expectedly, Vegas swooped him up in their expansion draft. Oster says the team had a feeling that Leipsic could be plucked from the Leafs, as Leispic was unquestionably the team’s most valued asset left unprotected.
Leipsic would crack the Golden Knights roster out of training camp, and spent much of the year on the team’s third line. His numbers weren’t flattering, but a lot of that can be attributed to poor puck luck. He was shooting at an incredibly unlucky 2.9% succession rate, and he was, in the purest sense — snake bitten.
He started to become a healthy scratch, from time to time, and as the Golden Knights exceeded expectations and started to look like a serious contender, the once prominent opportunity for Leipsic didn’t look so great, after all.
“It was a little frustrating. There were games where I was getting really good looks. I wasn’t playing power play, I wasn’t playing penalty kill but I was getting chances. I was still getting put out there and was creating stuff but for whatever reason, I kind of got boxed out. That stuff happens I guess, right?”
It was hardly what anybody expected.
“I think we all felt that there was a much greater opportunity for Brendan in Las Vegas than there was in Toronto and I would think even the Vegas [personnel] suggested that and yet here we are 9 months later and Las Vegas is one of the four team’s going for the Stanley Cup. Maybe the opportunity wasn’t as great as we all thought it was.”
Then, once again, Leipsic was one the move. He had a bit of a hunch a trade could come, but nothing would prepare him for the pure happiness he’d experience when he found out that he was heading to Vancouver to play for Green, alongside his old billet brother, Derrick Pouliot, in an environment where the team, as well has him, was slowly, but surely, developing.
“I think with him having Travis in Vancouver, it’s a good thing,” said Johnston. “Travis knows Brendan well and he knows when Brendan’s on his game and when he’s off his game.”
For a struggling player like Leipsic, going to a coach who trusted him was huge. Even though Vegas may have not worked out for Leipsic, there’s good reason to believe Vancouver could be his home for the next little while.
“It’s all about opportunity. You see guys like Riley Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, who were coached by Gerard Gallant in Florida. They know the coach, they feel comfortable. They know that they’re going to be put right out there if they make a mistake, or something. The coach trusts them. They play hard. That has a lot to do with it.”