by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
When Brendan Leipsic got the call, he was headed to brunch with his parents.
Then a member of the Milwaukee Admirals, affiliate of the Nashville Predators, the 20-year-old was one of the top-scoring rookies in the American Hockey League. The Ads had an afternoon game that day against visiting Lake Erie, but their game the previous Friday would turn out to have been the last appearance of Leipsic in an Admirals jersey.
“In your first pro season, you never expect to be traded,” said Leipsic. “You never expect to get a call from your general manager saying that. It was definitely a surprise, but I’m glad the way it turned out. I’m happy to be here.”
“Here” is the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, who acquired Leipsic along with Olli Jokinen and a 2015 first-round draft pick in a Feb. 15 trade with Nashville that saw Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson head to the Predators. Leipsic was dropped into a Marlies team in the midst of playoff hockey two months too soon.
After three straight division titles, the Marlies started the 2014-15 campaign losing 14 of their first 19 games, but began to put together wins throughout December and January. By the time of the trade, they were above .500 (20-18-9-0), but still 12th in the Western Conference.
But Toronto won 19 of its last 25, rattling off seven straight wins down the stretch to finish the regular season in a playoff position.
“It’s a fun group to be around, especially when you’re winning and stringing wins together like we were. It’s fun coming to the rink every day,” Leipsic said. “I know they started off not the way they wanted to but I think we were playing our best hockey towards the end of the year. Obviously, we got hot at the right time.”
Leipsic had two goals and four assists in his first six games with Toronto, but went cold after that with just one assist in his next 13 contests.
“You sort of identify with that team that you’re drafted by, and I’m sure it was upsetting as a young player to get traded that early,” said Marlies head coach Gord Dineen. “I think there was a little bit of a personal adjustment for him, coming to us. I credit that little bit of a slow start to that, just getting his head around being with a new team and identifying with a new team. But once he did, he really to show the things he had success with in Milwaukee.”
The Predators selected Leipsic in the third round (No. 89) of the 2012 NHL draft at the end of the Winnipeg native’s second season with Portland of the Western Hockey League. Finishing his junior career (2010-14) with 302 points in 261 regular-season games, Leipsic was a core piece of all four of Portland’s runs to the WHL finals, including posting 24 points in 21 games to help guide the team to a league championship in 2013.
What worked in junior and with Milwaukee is starting to work again for the rookie with the Marlies. He finished his first AHL regular season with 12 points in his final eight games, posting his first professional hat trick in the process.
“He adds a real tenacity with his speed, and he can do things, make plays, with his speed. He’s got a real good vision with the puck,” said Dineen. “He’s been one of the catalysts for our team down the stretch.”
Dineen and his staff mixed and matched Leipsic’s linemates upon his arrival, trying to find the right players to fit together to make an impact. Making up an all-rookie line with Connor Brown and Ryan Rupert flanking Leipsic, the Marlies coaching staff seems to have struck gold.
“These are three rookies that have a knack for each other, and I don’t think they’re constantly trying to pass the puck to each other,” he said of the trio. “They’re shooting more, and I think that’s been a good thing for the three of them because they’re all [normally] pass-first type of guys.”
“Once I started getting more familiar with the some of the guys I was playing with and with my linemates, it made it easier,” Leipsic added. “Playing with Rupert and Brown, we’re all kind of similar players and the same age, so it made that a lot easier, too.”
The similarities are striking. All three are first-year players, drafted in 2012, and born six months apart. They all came from major juniors (Brown and Rupert each played in the Ontario Hockey League) and play a quick, smart game.
The learning curve every player experiences in his first professional season was heightened with Leipsic’s mid-season trade, but jumping directly into an unfamiliar team’s playoff push helped him get right into the mindset that he needed.
He finished the regular season with 54 points in 74 games, and has a goal and an assist through the first three games of Toronto’s conference quarterfinal playoff series with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Seeded seventh in the West, the Marlies have the 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series heading into Saturday’s Game 4 in Grand Rapids (7 p.m. ET, AHL Live, Leafs TV, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio).
Playing in 82 postseason games in four seasons with Portland has given Leipsic an extra boost in his first professional playoff action, as he comes in with the knowledge of how to execute in high-pressure situations.
“I went to four WHL championships, so I’ve played a lot of hockey,” he said. “It’s just being in the moment and knowing what to expect. Being a lower seed, I don’t think we really feel as though we’re a seventh-place team. But we’re just trying to take it game-by-game.”