Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Leivo getting shot with Blues after successful playoff run

Forward helped defeat Blues' AHL affiliate in Calder Cup Final year ago, 
has taken challenging path to get game back after serious knee injury

ST. LOUIS -- When Josh Leivo went crashing hard into the boards Dec. 21, 2019 against the Vegas Golden Knights, the immediate feeling was not a good one.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues forward Josh Leivo had two assists Tuesday in a 4-2 win against the
Minnesota Wild, adding fuel to his shot at making the roster.

The Vancouver Canucks forward, as he was skating off the ice, would slam his stick against the boards as he was somehow able to skate off the ice. It was quite telling.

The end result was a fractured right kneecap, the end result of getting shoved into the side boards by Vegas defenseman Nick Holden at 11:42 of the second period (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSdrV3nFqL4).

"That was a tough injury. A full year of rehab," Leivo said after picking up two assists in a 4-2 preseason win over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday.

It was Leivo's first season in Vancouver, after getting traded there by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

No, it wasn't career-threatening, but the ensuing rehab and layoff can play mind games. Leivo, 25 at the time, had age on his side. He was never questioning whether his career was over.

"I think I was still too young," Leivo said. "I still believed in it. Maybe if I was older, maybe that might have happened. I still felt good, still believed in my game."

Believed in his game enough to grind through the rehab, and with the help of a wife and two sons, make it all the way back to the NHL.

Leivo, 29, trying to make the Blues roster this season, needed something outside his own mind to help him through the physical, and in some cases, the mental process.

"That's it, you've just got to stick with it," Leivo said. "I think the mental part was there, but I think we have a good sports staff, my wife and when we had kids (two sons), that kind of makes it easier. The days go by quicker, you have fun with it and that helped those days go by. Just trying to get your hockey game back to the way you know you can play it. I think that took a full year and now I'm doing it."

Leivo played a season and a half with the Canucks, totaling 85 games, then signed a one-year contract for $875,000 with the Calgary Flames, but playing a fourth-line role and didn't get to produce much. He only played in 38 games and had just six goals and three assists.

"I went to a new team. It worked out, but I wasn't in the mix a lot," Leivo said. "That was another step and then I get sent down last year. It's been a roller coaster, but I'd like to keep my mindset going forward and I think it's helped me learn a lot."

Leivo, a third-round pick by the Maple Leafs in 2011, signed with the Carolina Hurricanes last season, a one-year, $750,000 contract. But he did get sent down after playing in just seven games (one goal, two assists). He would find his offensive game again.

Playing for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, Leivo thrived. He had 46 points (22 goals, 24 assists) in 54 regular-season games, then really took off in the Calder Cup Playoffs with 29 points (15 goals, 14 assists) in 18 games, helping the Wolves win the Calder Cup, beating the Blues' affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, in five games.

"I think last year gave me a lot of confidence," Leivo said. "Going deep, you kind of learn how to win and learn how to play every day. Can't take any days off in the playoffs and I think I figured that out. I just wanted to translate that to the new year with the Blues.

"I played against them in the finals, so you know they're watching you. I think I've heard it my whole career when you're in junior, there's always someone out there. I think I've kind of figured it out now and kind of know how to put the game together for a full 60.

"I didn't play a lot in Calgary, I was more fourth line. No excuse, but you're not getting enough minutes. Last year I was relied on. When the coach gives you that respect and trust, you can kind of find your game again and then we had a good team. When you're playing on a good team, you can have success and I think that was the root cause."

The Blues came calling with a one-year, $750,000 contract, and it wasn't for lack of noticing who the 6-foot-2, 192-pound winger was.

But before that, Blues coach Craig Berube didn't know much of Leivo.

"Not a lot," Berube said. "I knew he was a good scorer down in the minors and things like that, but he's got a lot of good details to his game. He's strong on pucks, he makes little, subtle plays with the puck whether it's coming out of our end or in the offensive zone and he's got a good nose for the net. He finds open ice very well in the offensive zone."

Berube had Leivo play on a line with Robert Thomas and Pavel Buchnevich Tuesday against the Wild in place of Vladimir Tarasenko, who was out due to illness.

Leivo has five points (two goals, three assists) in four preseason games and is getting a great opportunity playing with skill players here. He has a flare for offense and is providing plenty of ammunition on his side to the coaching staff, making it difficult to send him to the minors.

"He's a great hockey player," forward Nathan Walker said of Leivo. "I know the guys who played against in the finals last year in Springfield said he was really good. When you see him on the ice, he's dancing out there, he's looking really good.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Josh Leivo (17) celebrates a goal after setting up Pavel Buchnevich (left)
in a 4-2 preseason win over the Minnesota Wild at Enterprise Center.

"He had a helluva year, a helluva playoff. I believe he won the MVP down there for the playoffs too. It's great."

Whether he earns one of those precious few forward spots that are up in the air or not, Leivo is doing his best to leave it all on the line.

"I'm getting good opportunities playing with some phenomenal players," Leivo said. "I missed a couple empty-nets the last couple games or got stopped. Chances are there playing with some good players. Just got to keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully it works.

Perhaps the Blues found themselves a diamond in the rough, or at least they'd like to believe so.

"I think that playoff last year with scoring a lot and getting some points gave me some confidence to play the game I've always played," Leivo said.

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