Earlier today, the New Jersey Devils announced that they have re-signed another one of their restricted free agents in this offseason. This one is more substantial than Colton White. The Devils announced that they have re-signed center Michael McLeod to a two season deal worth $1.95 million. According to the team’s official website, McLeod will be paid $950,000 next season and $1 million in the second season. That means his cap hit will be $975,000. McLeod will still be a restricted free agent at the end of this new contract after the 2022-23 season and he will not be eligible for arbitration.
McLeod just finished his entry level contract. He played all of the 2021 season with New Jersey and showed he can perform at this level by scoring a goal (he scored 9), playing in a bottom-six role (often with Nathan Bastian and Miles Wood), and even getting some work on the penalty kill. A new contract was expected. And it turned out to be a modest increase over his ELC. McLeod received a slightly more lucrative deal than his friend and linemate Bastian. However, it is consistent with what a lot of bottom-six forwards get in this day and age. Remember: the minimum salary in the NHL is now $750,000 so being close to or at a million dollars in salary is not as pricey as it may seem on the surface.
Did McLeod play all that well? Well, not exactly. In 5-on-5 play, when McLeod took a shift, the Devils suffered some of the worst on-ice percentages among forwards in 2021. Check out the forward’s on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick. When McLeod was on the ice, the team’s CF% was 46.49% and the team’s SF% was 46.35% - meaning the Devils were out-attempted and out-shot when McLeod took a shift. The team’s xGF% was a more acceptable 49.27% when McLeod took a shift so it was not all bad anytime #20 hit the ice. The scoring chance percentages were also closer to 50%. Still, even if the attempts and shots against were of a lower danger, being pinned back is not helpful in general. That said, McLeod was still learning the NHL game and was often in between Miles Wood, whose off the puck play is questionable at best, and a similarly inexperienced Bastian.
What’s more is that McLeod without Bastian apparently suffered a lot in the run of play. This is notable as Bastian did suffer an injury that caused him to miss several weeks of the 2021 season. Per the with-and-without-you stats at Natural Stat Trick, McLeod’s on ice percentages dropped off a cliff without Bastian (and Wood for that matter). Curiously, Bastian and Wood performed better without McLeod in 5-on-5 play too. This is all leading up to me raising an eyebrow that McLeod received a better deal than Bastian did. Are centers really worth that much more? Maybe?
Still, I am hopeful that a second full season of McLeod will lead to better results on the ice. Let us not forget that the 2021 Devils were bad and had little to play for the second half of that shortened season. Throw in a Wood-McLeod-Bastian line that was instructed to dump and chase a lot and that could have hurt the 5-on-5 figures more than we may think. The expected goal difference may be a better representation that McLeod was an OK third or fourth-line center on a bad team in a bad season in 2021. I am happy that he scored a goal and eight others, most of them of the very sweet variety. And he should grow as a potential penalty killer and skater in a 5-on-6 situations.
There is that Seattle-sized elephant in the room. With this signing, McLeod is now eligible for the NHL’s exposure requirements for forwards. I published a roundtable discussion of who the Devils should protect by Saturday’s deadline for the expansion draft. Then, McLeod was not signed. With today’s news, McLeod could be left exposed. This means the Devils could actually have a choice to make between Bastian and McLeod as the second exposed forward, assuming Andreas Johnsson is the other one. (And if Nick Merkley is re-signed, the decision adds another option.) Personally, I would protect Bastian over McLeod. Bastian was the better player last season and the Devils have depth at forward to fill in as needed. But that is only my opinion. It is up to General Manager Tom Fitzgerald to make that choice. At least he now has this additional option.
In fact, I would have preferred that Bastian received this deal and McLeod would have received what Bastian did sign for. Still, I am not unhappy at all about the re-signing. McLeod was going to get a new deal. This is a fair deal for the bottom-six role he has served and likely will serve for the next two seasons. He has some work to do to improve at this level and I am hopeful he will. We shall see if the Devils opt to keep a Wood-McLeod-Bastian unit going or make some adjustments for 2021-22. But I do think the bottom-six center can be a better 5-on-5 player, chip in some points, and generally not be a problem for what I hope will be an improving team.
Now I want to know what you think of this signing. Are you pleased McLeod is signed for two more seasons? Do you think the money is right? What do you expect from the player in the next two seasons? Will he be exposed for Seattle? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about McLeod in the comments. Thank you for reading.