The Toronto Maple Leafs are pretty banged up at the moment with six regulars out, and the team is even thinner after the blockbuster deal last week that sent Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators. Therefore there were low expectations heading into Saturday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks in British Columbia. It was the perfect situation for prospect Brendan Leipsic to make his NHL debut.
Leipsic was traveling with the AHL Toronto Marlies in Newfoundland when he was informed that he had been called up to play for the Leafs – meaning he would have to get across the country in just a matter of hours. But it was hardly an inconvenience for the eager forward.
“It was one end of Canada or the other,” Leipsic said after a day of being unsure as to whether he would be called up. “It feels amazing. You work hard all your life to get to this point. It was a pretty cool experience and hopefully I’ll get a second game.”
Leipsic began the game in a bottom-six role but eventually scored the game-winning goal in the Leafs’ 5-2 win. It was quite the unique first NHL tally – not only was it the game-winner, but he batted the puck out of mid-air for a rare baseball-style goal. And despite the last-second call-up, his parents managed to make it to the game in time to see his big night.
Prior to the call-up to the Maple Leafs, Leipsic was the third-highest active scorer on the Marlies roster, behind only T.J. Brennan and William Nylander. The Marlies have run away with the league lead in wins and points and will likely enter the postseason as the No. 1 seed.
So it was no problem for the Maple Leafs to call both Leipsic and Jeremy Morin up for a game or two, as they will likely be returned to the Marlies roster within the next week, as soon as some of the Leafs get healthy.
Leipsic was acquired from the Nashville Predators last February – almost an exact year ago – in a deal that sent rentals Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli the other way. The trade came at the very start of the Maple Leafs’ current rebuild – and the beginning of the end of the dark days in Toronto. In fact, it was a trade that was made during the dark days – fresh off the firing of former head coach Randy Carlyle, with polarizing ex-general manager Dave Nonis at helm and in the middle of an infamous breakdown (where they went 1-14 dating back to early January).
The Leafs would go on to win just seven of their 25 remaining games, finishing 27th overall and garnering the fourth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, which they used to select top prospect Mitch Marner with. They subsequently traded down several times throughout the draft, allowing them to select nine prospects deemed the best fits for the organization.
Last night, though, was all about Leipsic – a prospect whose projected future role with the Maple Leafs is a bit unclear. Some peg him as a future third-line NHL forward, citing his size (he’s only 5’9″) as what would keep him out of the top six. The former 120-point scorer in the Western Hockey League has scored 34 points (14G, 20A) in 47 games for the Marlies this season. He has a unique combination of grit and pure offensive talent that would make him an excellent all-around top-six addition to the Maple Leafs’ core.
As per tradition, Leipsic led the Leafs onto the ice from the get-go at Rogers Arena, and they left him out there by himself for quite a while – all in good fun, of course.
“I expected that,” said Leipsic. “I had a lot of fun with it. That’s all about your first-game experience. You only get one first game.”
With his first game behind him, though, Leipsic knows expectations from head coach Mike Babcock and the Leafs’ brass – as well as fans – will only rise from here. But he’s off to a good start, with his first goal already out of the way. Now, he can just focus on playing his game and working toward a permanent top-six spot on the main roster. If he is successful, Leipsic will quickly become one of the most integral pieces of the Leafs’ rebuild.