One of the positives about watching a mostly AHL lineup night in and night out the rest of the way for the New Jersey Devils is that one or hopefully more of these young players can jump out and show that they are improving and that they might become more than just AHL players in the nearer future. The Devils will need some homegrown talent to develop if they are to get better, as it cannot all come from outside signings and draft picks yet to occur.
One of those players that would be ideal to start panning out is 21-year old Michael McLeod. As the first round, 12th overall pick for New Jersey back in 2016, he is someone the team invested a lot of draft capital into in order to improve this hockey club. He is still young, and many first round picks do not make it out of the AHL at 21, but the Devils could really use a developmental jump from him soon.
To complement that pick, in the next round after taking McLeod, the Devils went ahead and took Nathan Bastian, who played his junior hockey for the Mississauga Steelheads, the same team as McLeod. Except for one stretch, the two have essentially grown together. After that draft, both played another season for Mississauga, with McLeod as the captain putting up 73 points in 57 games plus another 27 points in 20 playoff games, and Bastian as an assistant captain putting up 45 points in 58 games and another 14 points in 20 playoff games. Both players looked like good developmental choices for the Devils moving forward, McLeod especially as the top pick for NJ that year.
Since then, however, both players have floundered somewhat, to the disappointment of fans tracking them. Bastian went straight to the AHL for the 2017-18 season, never playing in the OHL again. His first year as a professional was underwhelming, with only 18 points in 68 games for Binghamton. But as a young 20 year old in a pro league, there was hope that he would improve with age. This year, in 56 games, he only has 23 points, so a slight improvement, but definitely not the improvement I am sure the team was hoping for.
McLeod took a slightly different path, still playing for Mississauga for most of 2017-18. He only had 6 games for Binghamton that year, otherwise still captaining the Steelheads to another playoff run. He was over a point per game that year, but many still saw it as a regressed year a little bit, given his PPG dropped over the year prior. This year, finally in Binghamton full time, he has produced 31 points in 52 games, but only 6 of those coming as goals.
But now with New Jersey gutted, tanking and rebuilding, the shot has been given for both to play some quality minutes in the NHL, and over the last three games, I feel that both have done quality work to put their best feet forward. The duo has been given third line duty for the most part since their promotion, playing alongside Blake Pietila, Drew Stafford or Nick Lappin. While the points have not really shown up, only one point for Bastian and none for McLeod, some of the underlying numbers show quality hockey. Check out the possession stats from the last three games according to Natural Stat Trick:
Those are really good numbers for a pair of 21-year olds playing most of their 5v5 hockey together during those games, and those games being only their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th ever NHL games. The overall CF numbers against Montreal look weak, in the low-to-mid 40s, but the Devils got dominated in possession in that game despite the win, and it shows by both of their relative Corsi numbers being positive. Only three players had Corsi numbers at or over 50% in that game, so that is no fault of these two.
The next two games, however, have seen even better numbers. These two were the best drivers of possession in the Calgary game for NJ according to relative Corsi. The Devils were crushed as a team in possession in that game, and these were the only two players on the entire squad who had Corsi numbers over 50%. Four other players were at 50% exactly, but only McLeod and Bastian were firmly in the positive.
The Devils as a whole were dominant in possession against Philadelphia, but both of these kids still managed to be positive in relative Corsi, and rather strongly so. McLeod was the 2nd best on the team, behind only Nick Lappin, and while he was on the ice, New Jersey had 16 attempts for and only 3 attempts against. Bastian was also on the ice for only three attempts against, but NJ only had 7 attempts for with him out there. Still, those are excellent numbers from a pair of 21-year olds just recently called up.
Now, I will say that both players have been somewhat sheltered in zone start percentages, understandably so at this point, and that does help to inflate possession numbers. However, that does not automatically ensure anything. The players still need to be able to handle those situations on the ice and use them to their advantage, and for the most part, McLeod and Bastian have done that. Again, points might not have come yet, but they are playing well, pushing the attack forward, and it should hopefully only be a matter of time before more points start coming.
So while it can be tough to watch our favorite NHL team trot out a mostly AHL lineup, especially today too against a tough Boston opponent, there are still some interesting things to watch and look for, and how McLeod and Bastian are playing has been one for me, and will continue to be for as long as Shero and Hynes keep them up. They are not crushing it with lots of points, but their possession numbers indicate some quality hockey overall, showing they are not being overwhelmed by the situation. That is a good sign, and I hope to see some more good signs from them moving forward. Boy, it would be a huge boost to this organization if one or both of them could showcase themselves as legitimate NHL players in the near future.