In keeping up with this week’s, “Should they stay or should they go” theme, we’ll be taking a look at Michael McLeod in today’s post. The center was drafted by the Devils with the 12th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. At that time, McLeod was coming off of a successful draft season that saw him put up 21 goals and 40 assists for 61 points in 57 regular season games for the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He was also coming off of a Hlinka Gretzky Cup Gold Medal with Canada’s U18 team where he had a goal and an assist in 4 games and a solid U18 World Junior Championship (WJC) appearance where he had 2 goals and 2 assists in 7 games. McLeod was praised for being a very fast, two-way center that could have some untapped offensive potential. The Devils obviously thought highly of him to take him that early in the draft and signed him to his Entry Level Contract (ELC) that October.
Michael McLeod would return to Mississauga for his draft+1 season in 2016-17, thus sliding the start of his ELC, and seemed to take a step forward. He captained the Steelheads and put up a strong 27 goals and 46 assists for 73 points in 57 regular season games. He was absolutely clutch in the playoffs too with 11 goals and 16 assists for 27 points in 20 playoff games. He played a depth role for Canada at the U20 WJC with 2 goals and an assist as they earned a Silver Medal. As you can see on the Hockey Prospecting Player Comparison Tool image in the next section, his Star Probability (0.70+ Pts/GP) and NHLer Probability (200+ games) went up from 10% to 16% and 45% to 54% respectively. His skating and defensive game have always earned him praise but now it seemed like the offensive game was rounding into form.
Unfortunately, McLeod’s career would seem to turn with his draft+2 season in 2017-18. McLeod suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee in a preseason game against the Islanders and would have surgery that October. The Devils returned him to Mississauga, thus sliding his ELC for a second and final time. McLeod was productive in limited action for Mississauga with 16 goals and 28 assists for 44 points in 38 regular season games. In the playoffs he had 6 goals and 4 assists for 10 points in 6 games. However, you would certainly want to see a lot more out of a 1st rounder in his draft+2 season in the OHL. He was a part of Canada’s Gold Medal at the U20 WJC but once again played a depth role with just a goal and 3 assists in 7 games. McLeod did get a taste of professional hockey with 6 games at the end of Binghamton’s season where he had an assist. According to Hockey Prospecting his Star Probability went down from 16% to 7% and his NHLer Probability from 54% to 45% - just what it was in his draft season. One could argue that the injury and delayed start played a part to his underwhelming season though it was certainly concerning. With all that said, it’s time to take a look at what he’s done in his first two professional seasons.
An Overview of McLeod’s Professional Career
Michael McLeod turned pro for the 2018-19 season but was unable to make the Devils roster out of camp. He spent most of the season with the Binghamton Devils in the American Hockey League (AHL) where he had 6 goals and 27 assists for 33 points in 55 games. That placed him 5th on the team in scoring and 1st in assists on a struggling Binghamton team. According to Pick224, he was 3rd in Primary Pts/GP (0.45) and 2nd in EV Primary Pts/GP (0.35) going by a minimum of 40 games played.
Using the Elite Prospects advanced filter, we can see that McLeod’s 0.60 Pts/GP ranked 8th in the AHL among other Centers from the 2016 NHL Draft (min 40 GP). Ottawa’s Logan Brown, who was selected one pick ahead of McLeod after the Devils and Senators exchanged picks at the draft, was 5th with a 0.75 Pts/GP. Recently acquired Devils prospect and competition for McLeod, Janne Kuokkanen, was 3rd with a 0.79 Pts/GP. Hockey Prospecting used his AHL data for his final season in their system. As you can see below his Star Probability dropped again from 7% to 3% and his NHLer Probability from 45% to 37%.
Despite playing in 21 NHL games that season (20 from late February to the end of the season) and putting up 3 assists while averaging 12:12, it seems that McLeod’s downward trajectory, at least in according to being a top 6 player, was continuing. It’s a small sample size but Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) Chart shows McLeod’s struggle at the NHL level in 2018-19. A reminder they judge offense based on Goals For per 60, Expected Goals For per 60, and Corsi For per 60 while judging defense based on Expected Goals Against per 60 and Corsi Against per 60.
McLeod would spend most of his age 21 season in 2019-20 in Binghamton with 8 goals and 15 assists for 23 points in 47 games. According to Pick 224, his Primary Pts/GP was 6th (0.43) and his EV Primary Pts/GP was 1st (0.43) going by a minimum of 40 games played. To once again compare him to Janne Kuokkanen (who spent much of the season with Charlotte), Kuokkanen was 1st in Primary Pts/GP (0.66) and 2nd in EV Primary Pts/GP (0.41). In his 2 AHL seasons, McLeod’s EV Primary Pts/GP rate has gone up from 0.35 to 0.43 while his Primary Pts/GP rate has gone down slightly from 0.45 to 0.43. Comparing him to other U22 forwards in the AHL last season (min. 40 GP), McLeod’s 0.49 Pts/GP was tied at 42nd. Other Devils prospects on that list include Janne Kuokkanen at 5th with a 0.86 Pts/GP and Joey Anderson with a 0.77 Pts/GP.
McLeod did get into 12 NHL games from mid-December to the cancellation of the season in March, adding 2 assists in 12 games with a 10:14 average time on ice. Once again, it’s a really small sample size but according to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM chart, but it seems he was showing some encouraging signs this time around.
What Does the 2020-21 Season Mean For Him?
From a personal standpoint, the 2020-21 season is absolutely crucial for McLeod. He’s entering his age 22 season and final year on his ELC. He’ll need to establish himself as a regular to not only get a decent second contract but show that he is a part of the Devils long term plans. He’ll also need to show some versatility as to whether he can contribute at right wing in addition to center. His speed and defensive game makes him much more valuable as a center but the oppurtunity for him to make the roster and stay around may come at right wing. As we all know, the Devils are established down the middle with Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac, Jack Hughes, and Pavel Zacha. His ability to contribute to the PK could also help his case.
For those reasons, I think McLeod is in competition with a number of young forwards looking to make an impact. In my opinion this group of players includes LW/C Janne Kuokkanen, RW Joey Anderson, and RW Nick Merkley. I suppose you could include LW/C Mikhail Maltsev and RW Nathan Bastian as players further on the outside that could play their way into the team in training camp.
I think Kuokkanen has the best shot out of all of those players to contribute in 2020-21 and beyond. While capable of playing center due to his playmaking and passing abilities, his ability to excel at left wing should find him a spot on the 2nd or 3rd line for the Devils. He’s been the most productive and consistent out of this group at the AHL level with 0.827 Pts/GP rate over the past two seasons. For comparison, over that same time in the AHL, Anderson has a 0.702 Pts/GP rate, Merkley has a 0.697 Pts/GP rate, and McLeod has a 0.549 Pts/GP rate. McLeod isn’t in competition for the same role but it seems that Kuokkanen has a clearer path to a roster spot than McLeod.
I’m also a big believer in Joey Anderson and expect him to lock down a right wing spot in the bottom 6. Anderson, like McLeod, will also be entering his age 22 season. He is also regarded as a player with a strong defensive game and the ability to kill penalties effectively. He’s spent a bit more time with New Jersey over the past two seasons and it seems to have the inside track to the 3rd or 4th line right wing spot. Hopefully the competition between the two in training camp brings out the best in both.
Nick Merkley could also be competition for McLeod if he has to compete for a spot at RW. Multiple knee injuries have taken a toll on Merkley’s progress, especially considering he was never known for being a great skater. Still, Merkley has shown a strong, offensive game at the junior and AHL levels. He’ll certainly be looking to make the jump to the NHL in his age 23 season next year. McLeod will have the skating and defensive advantage over Merkley but he will also need to show that his offensive game is at a similar level or better to increase his chances.
It should also be noted that those are just the players already with the organization that I view as competition for McLeod in training camp. It doesn’t take into account any players acquired through the draft, free agency, or trades which is certain to change the landscape. I should also mention that the Devils could bring back RFA RW John Hayden or UFA C Kevin Rooney which would further complicate the 4th line competition. The point remains that McLeod doesn’t have a clear path to a roster spot entering a crucial 2020-21 and will need to be at his best in training camp to make an impression.
Returning to Binghamton to start the 2020-21 season would not be ideal for the former 1st round pick from 2016. It also wouldn’t be the end of the world as he would get a chance to play top line minutes, in all situations, and further refine his game. A NHL team will need more than 12 forwards and 4 centers to make it through a season so he would be called up at some point. Still, it wouldn’t be a great look and he could see his days with the organization numbered similar to how John Quenneville, the Devils 1st round pick in 2014, eventually found himself traded in 2019.
With all of that said, I think McLeod is most likely to start the 2020-21 season in Binghamton and be one of the first players called up when the Devils need re-inforcements. My expectation is that he splits the season between New Jersey and Binghamton in multiple stints. I expect him to remain a member of the organization at least through the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. The only type of trades I could see him involved in would be as a throw in piece in a larger trade (similar to Blake Speers in the Taylor Hall deal) or in an unproven young player for unproven young player deal (similar to John Quenneville for John Hayden). I think any deals like that would be in the beginning of the 2021 offseason. It is important to remember that the Devils would have to potentially protect him in the 2021 NHL Expansion draft but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over leaving him exposed to Seattle.
The most likely scenario I see is that McLeod remains a Devils player going into 2021-22 after signing a one or two year deal for fairly cheap. I think he will continue to serve as a depth piece that can fill in on a 4th line role with PK duties. The Devils may not have the highest quality of forward prospects outside of the NHL and AHL but they do have a lot of depth. Over the next few offseasons, those players will be ready to make the jump to the AHL or in some cases the NHL. At that point, unless McLeod has taken his game to another level, I think the Devils will look to trade him in a deal similar to the John Quenneville trade while he will still have some years of team control left.
What is your opinion of Michael McLeod’s game at this time? Do you think he figures in to the Devils short or long term plans? What do you expect out of him in 2020-21? Do you think his days in the organization could be coming to an end sooner than later? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!