As John said in his article yesterday, the New Jersey Devils have a lot of decisions to make this offseason. With about $34 million to work with in cap space, Tom Fitzgerald has to fill a significant amount of the roster — and he will have to be careful not to hand out any overpayments so the rest of the team can be as good as it can be. One of the less financially-strapping decisions Fitzgerald has to make is whether or not the team keeps fourth line center Michael McLeod.
McLeod’s History with the Devils
Michael McLeod, who turned 25 in February, was drafted 12th overall in the 2016 Entry Draft by the Devils. While Ray Shero may have had the thought at the time that his centers of the future were Pavel Zacha and McLeod, this quickly changed when the Devils were bad enough to finish with the 2017 first overall pick, when they snagged Nico Hischier. After Nico helped lead the Devils to the 2018 playoffs, their terrible 2018-19 season featured the NHL debut of Michael McLeod.
At the time, McLeod was very bad in the NHL and showed very little promise in his AHL production. He had arthroscopic knee surgery in 2017, derailing his hopes of making the roster earlier — and his production in the OHL was stalled when he was returned there following his surgery. Thus, when Jack Hughes was selected first overall, it looked like Michael McLeod had a tough road ahead of him to making a permanent spot on the roster. As his AHL production worsened, it began to look even worse.
Having posted a measly five points in 33 NHL games, Michael McLeod needed a spark to stick in the NHL — and he found that spark with Nathan Bastian in the 2020-21 season. During the bubble season, the longtime Binghamton teammates found their groove together. Nonetheless, McLeod — a terrible possession player when he entered the league — broke even in CF% when lined with Bastian when Wood was not on the ice, and they broke even in GF% as well. When McLeod was playing with Wood, and not Bastian, his xGF% shot up, but the Devils tended to give up more shot attempts — though the goals stayed even. When the BMW line was together, they nearly broke even in expected goals, had a 41.18 GF% (7-10), and a 46.80 CF%. However, the legend of that line began there.
McLeod and Bastian found their groove in the 2021-22 season, after Bastian was reclaimed from Seattle. They posted a 50.95 xGF% together and had a 17-18 goal differential at five-on-five. At long last, Michael McLeod was a legitimate fourth line center. In addition to his chemistry with Bastian, he became an excellent faceoff man in the 2021-22 season, boosting himself from 51.5% to a 57.3% success rate in the dot. He also became one of the team’s top penalty killers this season, though he did not find real success in this regard until more recently.
McLeod’s 2022-23 Regular Season
Michael McLeod was a different player this season, and he tried to show that right off the bat. In the team’s first 25 games, McLeod had three goals and nine assists. However, McLeod is still very much a fourth-line player, and he had only one goal in his next 55 games. However, his full-season totals of 26 points in 80 games was, by far, his best production yet in the NHL. Meanwhile, his analytic profile improved to that of a positively impactful bottom six center.
As you can see in his HockeyViz card below, McLeod is a mixed bag at this point. He does not hurt or help too much according to their model, but he does have setting skills and decent penalty killing ability. What stands out here is McLeod’s utterly putrid finishing impact of -6%. With a shot percentage of 4.4% this season, it is hard to argue with that — though I do think it will rebound closer to his career shooting percentage of 7.3% (I won’t expect his percentage of 8.8% prior to 2022-23).
So, at age 24, Michael McLeod solidified himself as a key cog in the system. He won over 60% of his draws, killed penalties much more successfully than last season, did not get caved in at even strength, and posted a career high in points. But just as it seemed like his scoring had dried up, he picked it up again late in the season. He had two points in his last three games before being concussed by an illegal check to the head from Brad Marchand, and he returned to the team in the playoffs on a mission.
McLeod’s Postseason Performance
In addition to his offensive contributions, McLeod was one who was engaged for the entirety of the first round series with the Rangers. He tried to energize his team in the third period of Game 2, when the Devils were down 5-1 for the second game in a row, as he fought Braden Schneider. He had the assist on the only goal that game, as well. McLeod then played a whopping 18:52 in their Game Three victory before being relegated to his usual duties in the following two wins.
McLeod’s efforts paid off in Game 7. After helping the Devils kill off three penalties in the first period, Jesper Bratt took a tripping call to negate a Devils power play in the second period. After play went from four-on-four to a penalty kill, Ondrej Palat dogged Chris Kreider and Adam Fox to set up none other than Michael McLeod, who was going to the net. While most Devils fans understandably might not have expected McLeod to score here, he pulled off the best offensive move of his NHL career to break the ice, opening the floodgates as the Devils took Game 7 from the Rangers.
While the Second Round did not go well for the Devils as a whole, Michael McLeod had an excellent series. In five games, McLeod had a goal and three assists. Even when the team looked absolutely lost, McLeod had assists in Games 1 and 2. He scored the goal you’ll see below in Game 3, and he posted an assist on Dawson Mercer’s goal in Game 5. He played big minutes in the Carolina series, averaging 18:16 of ice time per game. This was needed both when the Devils went 11/7, requiring McLeod to be a third line center, as well as when they dressed Curtis Lazar as the fourth line center. Seeing McLeod side-by-side with Lazar showed how much of a difference there is in their ability — McLeod is the type of depth you want on a Stanley Cup contending team.
While I do not think Michael McLeod should get too much from the Devils, his performances in the 2022-23 season indicate he might be due for more money than he’s been making. He’s coming off a salary of $1,000,000 this season, and he is an RFA due for arbitration. As McLeod is only 25 years old and has only been in the NHL for five seasons, he would be an RFA again if he signed a one-year contract, but not a two-year contract.
A contract that comes to mind that I do not want Fitzgerald to emulate is Casey Cizikas. In 2016, Garth Snow signed him to a five-year deal with an AAV of $3.35 million. Cizikas was coming off 29 points in his age-24 season, in which he made $1,000,000. Given their similar production up to that point — though Cizikas had more games played and total points — it comes to mind as a similar situation. Like Cizikas, this is McLeod’s third contract with the same team, which he is signing for his age-25 season.
A contract that I hope is closer to reality is that of Nico Sturm. Sturm came into the league a bit later than Cizikas and McLeod, but he plays a similar role with a much greater scoring touch. He had 11 goals in the bubble season for Minnesota, and won a Cup with Colorado before signing a three-year deal worth $2 million per year with San Jose in unrestricted free agency. While this was not a case of a restricted free agent re-signing long-term, this might be an image of McLeod’s market outside of New Jersey if he were to play hardball and go for Cizikas’ contract (or that of Miles Wood). Additionally, this salary should serve as a line that Fitzgerald should be wary of crossing. As you can see in McLeod’s player card from The Athletic, his market value was estimated at about $1.6 million in March. I’d say he’s added a few dollars to that amount, but not too many.
While McLeod had an improved season on the ice, it got off to a shocking and upsetting start. TSN journalist Rick Westhead reported that several members of the 2018 Canadian World Juniors team committed sexual assault. While the names of those perpetrators have not yet been released, Canadian police say they have reasonable grounds to believe in their identification of five players from that team being a part of the act. You can read more about it there, as the investigation has not revealed its findings to the public yet. It is not my place to speculate, but I take this situation seriously. I'm also sure that this situation has been and will continue to be taken seriously by the team and McLeod. I was not expecting the report to have not been released by now, though, but I await the state investigation’s conclusion.
Should the Team Keep McLeod?
In my opinion, Michael McLeod showed how impactful he can be on the ice in the 2022-23 season. Assuming that Nathan Bastian returns on another short-term deal, Michael McLeod can reunite with him to form their defensively solid fourth line. A key component to this is how much of a hard worker McLeod is on the ice. When things go wrong with him on, it’s not for his lack of effort. He can always clean up his positioning and improve his puck decisions, but he tries to stay within the structure as it is.
In addition to his on-ice contributions, the players in the Devils’ locker room seem to get along with McLeod well. I believe in the team value of keeping certain well-liked players around — especially if they can play well in their role. It’s even better when the player does not seek to go above his market value and stays with the team for a fair or team-friendly contract.
Will Fitz Keep McLeod?
I have no doubt in my mind that Lindy Ruff wants Michael McLeod back. Since Lindy Ruff is mostly confirmed to be returning, I assume that Fitzgerald will be on the same page about bringing him back to the team. There is a danger in putting too much stock into playoff performances as well — I am not convinced that McLeod is capable of being a third line center for a full season. As it is, his shot is far too weak and he does find himself overmatched at times when Ruff tries to match him up against a scoring line.
As it stands, McLeod and Bastian are restricted free agents and should return to the team. I do not expect Miles Wood to be lining up with them, but possibly Nolan Foote, Yegor Shrangovich, or some other young player who is still under team control. I think Fitz’s ultimate decision here is what kind of contract he should offer. Will McLeod take a longer-term contract for a team-friendly AAV, or will he be seeking the checking line payday that Cizikas got from the Islanders a few years back? If it’s the latter case, then I expect Fitzgerald to bridge McLeod to unrestricted free agency, betting that he won’t suddenly turn into a 40-point player. If that happens, well, then Fitz would either have to pay up next year or lose him. I think that those are the most likely situations.
What I don’t think is likely is Fitzgerald trading McLeod. After his playoff performance, I think they would want to keep him around next year regardless of whether he is locked in, long-term. As it stands, the Devils do not have the internal center depth to replace him — and they would have to pay up for a better producer in unrestricted free agency. There are some depth centers that might interest me in free agency, but they might not have the potential to still improve further as McLeod has. With the team pushing for a Stanley Cup, every contribution will count — and I think this team is certain to bring back McLeod for his effort, penalty killing, and role as a fourth line defensive faceoff specialist.
What I would offer: 3 years x $2 million
What I think Fitz will offer: 4 years x $2 million
What I think McLeod might want: 4 years x $3.25 million
What I think Fitz might budge to: 4 years x $2.5 million
What I think would be ideal: 3 years, <$2 million
What do you think of Michael McLeod? How did you judge his 2022-23 season? Do you want him back long-term? What role do you see him playing in for the Devils next year? Do you think he can actually be a third-line center? How much stock do you put in his playoff performance? How much would you offer McLeod? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.