Leivo supplies bite

GENE PEREIRA - Special to the Examiner

With a nickname like the Big Nickel, you expect Sudbury to be pretty good when it comes to mining.

So perhaps it's no surprise the Sudbury Wolves found a real gem in Barrie's own backyard. One only has to watch the performance of Innisfil native Joshua Leivo in this year's playoffs to know the Wolves extracted themselves a real nice find in the 11th round of the 2009 Ontario Hockey League draft.

"Oh yeah, I'd say," Wolves head coach Trent Cull said, adding a chuckle. "He's one of my top-line players, so any time you get a player like that later on, I'd say it's a little bit of luck, but you have to have some knowledge of your players and he's come out of nowhere to do great stuff for us."

This isn't the first time the Wolves struck it big in the 11th round. It was only seven years ago they selected a winger by the name of Benoit Pouliot with the same pick in the 2002 OHL draft. Pouliot blossomed into a junior star and went on to be selected fourth overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

In Leivo, Cull believes the Wolves have another special late-round player. Leivo came up big in the Wolves stunning four-game sweep of the Ottawa 67's in the opening round. The big six-foot-two, 180-pound left winger is second in team scoring with five goals and six assists in six playoff games.

"For me, he embodies everything we want our Wolves to be," said Cull, whose club was down 2-0 heading into Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Tuesday night in Mississauga against the heavily favoured St. Michael's Majors.

"He's a kid who plays hard, he's got skill. He's got good feet, he can skate. He's a kid who, when called upon, will physically challenge somebody else. He finishes his checks, works hard defensively and he's got that offensive flair.

"He's one of those kids I can't say enough about, because I do like what we have in him and I really do like what he provides for our team."

Leivo admits being passed up for so long in the draft has only provided him with added incentive.

"It didn't really matter where I was picked as long as I was given a chance to come out to a camp and show what I can do," the 17-year-old said. "I knew what I could do, I just had to work on it."

The grinding winger scored 30 goals with the Barrie minor midgets in his draft year, but scouts thought his skating was an issue.

He worked on it alright. By the time he got to the Wolves camp this season, Leivo had not only improved his skating, but added quickness and was more than ready. He had a great camp where he proved to be the biggest surprise.

Sudbury didn't waste much time signing him.

"A few friends had called me before camp. He was actually trying out in Newmarket and a couple of guys said, 'Hey, this kid is a pretty good player, so let me know what is going on with him,'" Cull said of Tier II Jr. 'A' teams

wanting to make sure they got first dibs if Leivo didn't make the grade. "I know some other guys and they were pretty impressed when they saw him playing. He came into our camp and he was one of those kids that impressed us from Day 1.

"He had some ups and downs, as most first-year guys do, but he came back and from Christmas on he's kept elevating his game."

Leivo, who notched 13 goals and 17 assists in 64 games in his rookie season, said it took him a little time to get adjusted to the OHL game.

"He wanted me to grind it out," Leivo said of what Cull asked of him early on. "(Cull) knew I could score goals. He gave me a shot at the beginning of the year and I started off slow, trying to get used to the league. He bumped me down but he knew I could do it, so he bumped me back up and ever since then I've shown him what I can do."

One thing Leivo certainly got plenty of in his rookie season was ice time. With a young squad and injuries playing a factor early on, Cull leaned on his young winger and he wasn't disappointed.

"You know what? He warranted it," Cull said of the ice time. "We were a very young team at the start of this year. I was playing a lot of the young guys, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad in a lot of situations.

"I've always liked Josh. If you come and you work for me, we're going to get off on the right foot. He has those other intangibles. He's done a good job. He deserves everything he's getting."

Leivo brings a well-balanced game to the rink. He's not afraid to use his size and, while he boasts a nice offensive touch, it's his determination to get the puck that Cull absolutely loves.

"He's a kid who can play in traffic," the Wolves' rookie head coach said. "He's not afraid to go to those gritty areas, which I love. I love all my guys to work and to play as hard as they can, but I love skilled guys, too, and he's shown both those attributes.

"He hounds pucks. He's a dog on the puck. What I mean is he's like a dog on a bone. He hounds the puck and when he wants to get the puck, he's going to get the puck and when he gets it, he's tough to get it off."

Leivo's game really took off late in the season when Cull put together the line of Michael Sgarbossa, Andrey Kuchin and Leivo in last month of the regular season. In seven games, Leivo had five goals and three assists playing on that line.

Along with Cull, Leivo also credits Sgarbossa, a former Barrie Colt who came over in an early December deal from Saginaw, for helping take his game to another level.

The former Barrie Colt forward and San Jose Sharks prospect had a blazing 29 goals and 33 assists in just 37 games with the Wolves.

"He's got the experience," Leivo said of playing with Sgarbossa. "Going to (San Jose's) NHL camp, he knows what it's about and he tells me what to do and shows me the things that I need to work on to have a chance to make it, or get to (an NHL) camp."

Leivo chuckles when asked about suiting up for his home town's arch rivals. He still recalls his biggest thrill early on when he scored a goal in his first OHL exhibition game on Sept. 12 in a 4-4 draw with the Colts in Barrie.

Every time the Wolves visited the Barrie Molson Centre, one could find a large sign hung in the arena supporting him along with a huge cheering section.

"That was fun, for sure, with all my friends and family there," Leivo said. "I guess when I scored that first goal in exhibition in Barrie, it was good because they were all cheering. It was very exciting."

For now, Leivo is focused on helping the Wolves find a way to get past a very deep and talented Majors squad.

One thing is certain: regardless of what happens this season, the Wolves' latest gem extracted from the late rounds of the OHL draft will play a leading role for the Wolves from here on in.

"He's part of our future," Cull said. "He's one of my guys and he's one of those pleasant surprises for us as a team and for us as an organization."

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