The Darryl Sutter era 2.0 is officially here. The Calgary Flames picked up a win in Sutter’s first game back behind the bench on Thursday, moving back to .500. Despite the win, the Flames are still four points back of a playoff spot. To put it mildly, things haven’t been pretty in Calgary, which led to head coach Geoff Ward being fired in just his first season starting as head coach of the team.
Ward’s time with the team was full of questionable and sometimes downright puzzling decisions. Ward was criticized for a number of decisions he made while head coach of the team, but one of the most puzzling ones was the usage of forward Josh Leivo. Leivo was scratched on multiple occasions under Ward for reasons unknown. Luckily Sutter put him back into the lineup on Thursday for his first game behind the bench which turned out to be a great call.
Leivo proved his doubters wrong by scoring both of the Flames goals in the win. However, it wasn’t just Thursday night that Leivo’s strong play began though. Despite not getting the offense to go along with it, Leivo has put up very solid underlying numbers this season and has played solid hockey all year. Let’s take a look at why Leivo has always deserved to be in the Flames lineup.
Breaking down the numbers
First off, let’s take a look at how Leivo has done so far this season by looking at some key underlying metrics. All numbers are 5v5 SVA courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
|Rank on team||5th||4th||1st||7th||7th||2nd||5th|
One look at these numbers and it’s clear he is a one of the better forwards the Flames have on the roster. He ranks inside the top seven or higher in every major category. Judging by these numbers, the debate should be if Leivo should be played in the top nine, or even the top six, not if he should have a spot in the lineup.
His results are very solid across the board for a depth player and his 5v5 play has been good enough so far this season to earn a regular spot in the lineup and the numbers support that. So why has there been the notion that he was having a bad season before Thursday night?
The answer is that despite his solid underlying numbers Leivo has struggled to put up points this year and his offensive production has been criticized. Brought in to be a potential option alongside Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames were hoping Leivo could help chip in offensively. Coming off a very solid season for the Canucks with a 0.53 points per game in 36 games last year, there was hope he could bring some much needed depth scoring to the Flames.
So far though he has only five points in 21 games and his points per game is just 0.24 points per game. Leivo had just one goal on the year before Thursday night. Why is that though? Was it due to his play or perhaps some terrible luck? The numbers suggest that luck is the main factor, not his play.
It’s pretty clear when looking at his numbers at 5v5 and ranks among Flames forwards that the reason for his lack of scoring isn’t because he isn’t generating anything while on the ice. The Flames are creating chances when Leivo is on the ice, high danger ones as well.
He’s been generating shots and chances at a respectable rate but has just had some incredibly bad luck so far this season. He currently has 31 shots, including 13 high-danger chances in his 21 games played. The problem is before Thursday night Leivo was shooting a career worst 3.45%. His career average is 12.6%.
His iCF/60 is actually 55th league wide among forwards who have played at least 200 minutes. It may not seem like much on the surface but that’s an impressive rank for a player with his role and expectations. He sits above star players like Gabriel Landeskog, Aleksander Barkov and yes, even Connor McDavid. Team wide, he sits second for iCF/60 among forwards who have played at least 200 minutes, behind only Mikael Backlund.
All the numbers suggest Leivo has played well this year but unfortunately he’s had some bad luck actually converting that into goals which has created the negative view of his impact on the team. He creates opportunities on the ice, and just needs some more of the luck that he had on Thursday night in order for his points total to continue to climb.
What about his defence?
So maybe the reason he was scratched is that his defensive play has been poor? Nope. His defensive impacts have been good as well. He ranks second among Flames forwards with at least 200 minutes TOI for CA/60 at 49.18 behind only Backlund, and third for HDCA/60 at 8.98.
To get a better understanding of his play at both ends of the ice, let’s take a look at his impacts in the offensive zone and defensive zone at 5v5 courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdey and Hockeyviz.com.
His impacts aren’t incredible, but they certainly aren’t bad at all considering what he’s getting paid. He’s helping to create chances at one end while helping to eliminate chances at the other end which is all you can ask. His contributions at both ends of the ice should be more than enough to earn him a regular spot in the lineup, especially considering the other options the Flames have.
The fact is Leivo is creating offense when he’s on the ice. He has just needed a little more luck to actually get the point totals to go with it. His defensive impacts are also decent, and aren’t hurting the team at all. His play at even strength has been very solid, and should earn him more minutes than he has gotten so far this season. Let’s hope Thursday was the start of his luck finally turning around.
Comparing the other options
It’s been a revolving door at forward for the Flames this season, especially on the fourth line. The team has used a total of 18 different forwards this season just 27 games into the year. Last season they used only 17 throughout the entire year.
Presumably Leivo is fighting for a spot in the lineup with some of these other names who have gotten a shot in the bottom six over him at times. Let’s take a look at how they all stack up against each other so far this year. The number in brackets represents their rank among all Flames forwards.
|Joakim Nordstrom||23||0||46.36 (13)||45.16 (14)||44.59 (14)||9.38 (11)|
|Sam Bennett||24||6||48.82 (12)||48.39 (12)||46.21 (12)||13.98 (4)|
|Josh Leivo||21||5||51.20 (7)||55.29 (5)||57.51 (2)||14.05 (2)|
|Dominik Simon||9||0||43.69 (15)||50.68 (8)||48.39 (10)||6.31 (16)|
|Byron Froese||6||1||28.39 (18)||18.75 (18)||0 (17)||4.5 (17)|
|Brett Ritchie||6||2||54.25 (3)||49.46 (11)||46.02 (13)||14 (3)|
|Buddy Robinson||4||0||39.32 (17)||40.5 (15)||28.68 (15)||9.57 (9)|
|Zac Rinaldo||2||0||39.73 (16)||34.12 (16)||0 (18)||0 (18)|
For this comparison I didn’t include Glenn Gawdin as the AHL season has started up again and barring any injuries, he’ll most likely stay there in order to get as much playing time as possible. Also although Zac Rinaldo has played just two games this year, he was in the lineup over Leivo both games he played so I included him for comparison sake. Same story for Robinson who has only played four games, but played over Leivo in three of them.
First of all, yikes! The Flames’ depth player’s numbers do not jump off the page, and beg the question as to why they are even in the conversation. I can understand the need to try players out to see what they can do, but with the number of games these guys have played over Leivo is a headscratcher. Let’s hope this gets sorted out under the new coach.
The Flames’ fourth line has been a disaster almost all year, and you can see why. Over a combined 95 games played by these eight players, they have generated only 14 points, four of which came on Thursday night. Obviously you don’t expect a ton of offensive production from the guys who play mainly on your fourth line, but the issue is that when most players from that group are on the ice the Flames are constantly outshot and out chanced. Looking at those numbers you can see why.
Leivo has played the third most games of the group, yet has the best underlying numbers. Leivo is the only player that positively affects the Flames’ chances of winning consistently from that list. He’s the only player who is above 50% for CF%, xGF%, and HDCF%. The rest get absolutely caved in at even strength except Ritchie, although he’s played just six games, and recently has been elevated to play with Gaudreau and Monahan.
Leivo’s effect on his teammates has been positive this year too, especially compared to the other names on the list. His impacts relative to his teammates have been solid all around. He currently has a CF% Rel. of 1.52 which ranks fifth on the team among forwards. His xGF% Rel. is 3.98 and fourth on the team among forwards behind only Backlund, Gaudreau, and Andrew Mangiapane. Impressive company to say the least.
In particular, his work with Monahan and Gaudreau has been solid and it’s a shame he hasn’t been given more of a chance with #13 and #23. Courtesy of moneypuck.com the lines’ xGF% of 56.3 is third best of any line the Flames have used for at least 50 minutes this year. For comparison, when Dominik Simon has played on that line their xGF% is 50 in 57.5 minutes of action. With Sam Bennett the line has an ugly xGF% of 43.6 over 85 minutes, which is second worst among any line used over 50 minutes by the team.
Keep him in the lineup
You may not like what Josh Leivo brings to the table offensively, but the fact is the Flames simply aren’t in a position to be scratching players like Leivo considering the other options they have at the bottom of the lineup. They just aren’t deep enough to be sitting players who positively effect play at even strength like he does most nights.
He’s not going to light it up offensively every night, but he will certainly help the Flames at both ends of the ice more than any other option they have for the fourth line. When Leivo plays over the other options, the Flames’ chances of winning are better and that’s what matters most.
He’s suffered from some terrible luck this season which may have finally started to turn around on Thursday night with his two goal performance. If he can continue to get opportunities in the lineup every game he has a great shot at becoming a key depth piece for the Flames as the year goes on.