This was a fairy tale in the midst of a nightmare week.
Brendan Leipsic, a budding, 21-year-old prospect, was recalled for his first NHL game with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday morning. But it was in Vancouver.
So he quickly hopped on a cross-country flight. His parents, Greg and Kathleen, had to scramble to fly to Seattle from their hometown of Winnipeg, rent a car and drive up for the 4 p.m. local start.
As they boarded a plane, Leipsic’s brother Jeremey broke the news to the hockey world on Twitter that big brother had been called up. Then NHL legend Teemu Selanne – whose wife, Sirpa, is best friends with Kathleen from their days together in Winnipeg – posted an adorable picture of Brendan as a toddler eating a pregame meal with him to wish him luck.
Leipsic capped his dream day with the winning goal that night, batting a puck out of midair as the Leafs beat the Canucks 5-2.
He played less than 10 minutes because of his whirlwind trip, but that hardly mattered. He made it – to the game and to the NHL.
“It feels amazing,” Leipsic said. “You work this hard all your life to get to this point. Hopefully I get a second game at it, too.”
With the number of injuries the Leafs have had, he certainly should. Toronto is in the midst of an almost unbelievable string of misfortune the past week, to the point that the Leafs actually had more salary not playing than in the lineup on Saturday.
The 20-player lineup they dressed against the Canucks came with a total salary cap hit of $35.6-million (U.S.).
The 10 players on the sidelines – including the season-long absences of Nathan Horton and Stéphane Robidas – will earn $36.3-million this season.
That’s been the nightmare part of the equation for coach Mike Babcock, whose club was in a three wins in 15 games death spiral (3-10-2) before beating Vancouver.
A lot of those nights, the Leafs haven’t played poorly. They deserved to beat the Canucks – outshooting them 38-19 – and were arguably the better team in a loss to Calgary earlier in the road trip. But they simply don’t have enough talent to win routinely with all these injuries.
Even though wins and losses are of secondary importance to management given this is a rebuilding season, the morale boost from having Leipsic and some of the other Toronto Marlies joining the roster is important. The Leafs don’t want a repeat of last season, when they won only 11 of their final 51 games and their work ethic was dubious as things fell apart.
There’s also a tangible benefit to seeing what some of the organization’s prospects can do. The trade deadline is two weeks away, and Leipsic’s play offers some early evidence of how converting rental players into assets can pay off.
It was actually a year ago, to the day, that the Leafs sent Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to Nashville for Leipsic and a first-round pick (24th over all) as part of a trade that looks genius in hindsight.
Franson is only a third-pair defenceman in Buffalo. Santorelli is playing marginal minutes in Anaheim.
Through other trades, the Leafs turned that first-round pick into two second-rounders and a third and drafted Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco and Martins Dzierkals.
Leipsic, meanwhile, is drawing strong reviews in his second AHL season. Only 5 foot 9, he is a skilled agitator who has 34 points in 47 games with the Marlies. Some NHL scouts compare him to someone such as Matt Calvert, who has become an effective energy player for Columbus.
Other small players such as Johnny Gaudreau, Brendan Gallagher, Tyler Johnson, Mats Zuccarello and Brad Marchand have changed the perception of how big you need to be to be effective in the NHL, too.
“He’s flown under the radar behind William [Nylander] and some of the other [top prospects with the Marlies], but he’s the real deal,” said Rich Clune, who has played with Leipsic in both the Predators and Leafs systems. “It speaks volumes that the Leafs targeted him [in the trade].”
“He’s a greasy little guy,” Babcock said. “He’s got real good skill level and tenacity about him. I thought he played well.”
Branded as too small for years, Leipsic wasn’t heavily scouted as a bantam and slipped in the WHL draft to Portland in the sixth round. But, as part of a great Winterhawks team, he exploded for 49 goals and 120 points the year after Nashville drafted him. He quickly become one of their top prospects.
Leipsic has credited Selanne with being his inspiration.
“He’s been a big influence,” Leipsic told Yahoo Sports during his breakout year in Portland. “I was able to learn a lot from him growing up and see what it takes to get to the NHL.”
So between Leipsic and the other three prospects the Leafs picked up – who are all putting up impressive numbers with their junior teams – the franchise managed quite a haul for two veteran role players they weren’t going to re-sign last February.
There’s a lesson in there for teams as they approach the deadline.
But Leipsic’s debut was also a nice preview of a better future for the Leafs, one with more prospects making an impact in the NHL and the fruits of this painful rebuild paying off.
Perhaps sooner than most anticipated.Report Typo/Error