There’s no doubt the Vancouver Canucks went through a transition this offseason. They have added players that fans and management alike hope will be significant contributors to the team’s improvement en route to their first playoff berth in four years.
Among those new players, J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland should be considered improvements on what was a lackluster top-six forward group other than their budding – or already present – stars in Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser.
Those two wingers should be able to lift the quality of the forward group overall, but they won’t necessarily fix everything. Ferland is a streaky goalscorer who may not always play a full season, but brings the type of hard-nosed game the Canucks have been lacking. When it comes to Miller, there’s experience and enough offensive production and play-driving ability to warrant giving up a first-round pick in a vacuum, but it remains to be seen whether he can translate his success riding shotgun with Steven Stamkos to the Canucks’ top-six.
The additions of Ferland and Miller are liable to leave a couple of wingers on the outside looking in. Among Canucks regulars, the forwards that averaged the most even-strength time-on-ice per game were Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Jake Virtanen, Brandon Sutter, and Josh Leivo. Handing players like Virtanen and Sutter less minutes makes sense as the Canucks attempt to win more games than they lose next season, but Leivo has flashed enough skill to deserve a look in the team’s top-six.
Upon his arrival from Toronto in the middle of last season, Leivo averaged his highest overall time-on-ice in the NHL throughout the six years he’s bounced between the Toronto Marlies and the Maple Leafs. Leivo was able to score 10 goals and 18 points through 49 games for Vancouver while averaging just under 16 minutes a game. That’s not the most impressive stat line by any means, but it’s really the underlying numbers that shine a light on what type of player the 26-year-old winger can be.
The just-over-half-season Leivo played in Vancouver doesn’t make for the biggest sample size, but during that time he was able to keep an impressive on-ice shot attempt percentage of 54.12. When compared to the rest of the Canucks last year, Leivo stands on top by this metric and by a sizable margin. The next best forward on Vancouver last year was Brock Boeser with an on-ice shot attempt percentage of 50.24%.
When looking at the underlying shot-based metrics, Leivo comes out looking like the Canucks’ best two-way player, but summing up his entire performance for Vancouver isn’t necessarily so straightforward.
Goals Above Replacement (GAR), measures all of an individual’s on-ice events and weighs them in a way that will produce a single metric that shows how many more “goals” the player is worth than the average waiver wire pick-up. It’s generally considered to be a superior judge of a player’s contributions that underlying shot-based metrics.
Last season in his 49 games played, Leivo had a GAR of 3.9, making him worth 3.9 goals or 0.7 wins above replacement-level. Since it is a cumulative stat, he didn’t get as much opportunity to produce as others — like how Horvat and his full 82-game season had him at 8.1 GAR. It’s impressive, nonetheless. Leivo’s GAR of 3.9 is good for fifth-highest among Canucks forwards last season, despite the fact that he played the least amount of games of any player in the top five.
Separating his even-strength production from his special teams, Leivo’s EV GAR of 5- since his presence on the power play and penalty kill actually lowered his total GAR – sits at 135th among all forwards with at least 200 TOI. That may not seem all that impressive at first glance, but it still puts him in the 73rd percentile of forwards, and indicates top-six production in almost half a season’s worth of games played last year.
To some degree, Leivo’s success can be attributed to playing with the right teammates. He played over 300 minutes alongside with Pettersson and Boeser, and another 160 with Bo Horvat. He was thrust into the top-six last year and was able to perform with high-calibre linemates. So shouldn’t that be enough to consider him for one of those six positions?
Understandably, it’s hard to justify giving a key role to a player that might appear at first glance to be riding the coattails of superior linemates, but the fact that he was able to produce with those players and both sides benefited from his presence on that line should be enough to justify sticking with the status quo.
At this point, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Canucks will have Leivo in a depth offensive role to start the year and with the new additions on the wing, he might spend some time in the press box. If his production falters because he’s with mediocre linemates, he could eventually see a spiral down the depth chart.
There’s no doubt that this team will improve on last season’s offensive totals. With a bolstered forward group and another year of development from their young players, there’s a sense that this team could have two solid forward lines. Whether either will include Leivo remains to be seen, but looking at how well he was able to play with the likes of Boeser and Pettersson, he deserves an extended look in the top-six.
As a line, Boeser, Pettersson, and Leivo outscored their opponents 14 to 12 while on the ice and were able to keep a 56.37 CF% and a 52.73 xGF%. That should be a clear indication that the team should stick with that combo to start the season, but obviously it’s up to the coaching staff to decide how they want to to implement the new players and if they see Leivo as a long-term option.
–stats via Natural Stat Trick and Evolving-Hockey–