On the surface, Michael McLeod’s 52-game 2020-21 season for the New Jersey Devils may not look like anything special. 15 points, nine goals, two game-winners, 60 shots on goal, 89 hits, and 42 penalty minutes while averaging just under 14 minutes of ice-time per game. But if you watched the majority of the season, his real value was the role he played as the team’s only right-handed center and one of their top penalty killers following the trade of longtime Devil center Travis Zajac.
McLeod finished second on the team in face-off winning percentage (51.5%) behind captain Nico Hischier – who only played in 21 games this season due to various injuries and ailments. Would any of these factors play into New Jersey’s decision to protect or not protect the 23-year-old pivot in the upcoming expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken? Probably, most definitely.
Motor Mike’s Unexpected Role
McLeod showed this season that with the support of the coaching staff and solid linemates he could become a very valuable third or fourth liner for the Devils, aka be a checking line center. Maybe that wasn’t what everyone expected when he was drafted 12th overall at the 2016 NHL Draft. But that’s okay. It doesn’t mean the pick has any less value or that he’s a bust. McLeod could have a very solid career for the next ten years like a Casey Cizikas for the New York Islanders or Barclay Goodrow for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I like the role I was in this year and I just want to keep building off of that,” said McLeod during his end-of-season media availability. “Teams need a guy that wants to win face-offs, hunt pucks on the forecheck and stuff like that. The coaches put a lot of trust in us on the penalty kill, which is nice. That was big (for me) to carve out that role. My goal was to stay in the NHL all year.”
Achievement unlocked. He was satisfied, is aware that he has room to keep improving and growing as a hockey player. He’s just 23. Think about how different of a person were you at 25, 27, or 29-years-old compared to when you were 23.
“I think I took big steps from where I was as a player last year. I’m happy with where I’m at but there is still room to grow more. I’m looking forward to next year and what this group can do. I really want to work on my shot this off-season,” McLeod said while also adding that he may adjust the flex/curve on his blade this summer.
Ruff Reaps Praise
McLeod really seemed to thrive under the tutelage of head coach Lindy Ruff and his staff. Maybe the circumstances of the unique season dictated that a but more than in the past. But there was never a threat of being benched for an entire game because of one mistake – something that happened in one of his first NHL call-ups during a game in Washington when John Hynes was coach. Keep in mind, different seasons, different circumstances. “Lindy’s thing was: it’s not about mistakes, it’s how you respond to it,” said McLeod.
“Michael has done a lot – if you look at his ice time – to say that maybe he is in that role (that has been vacated by Zajac’s departure). It’s something you have to evaluate, and he’s a guy that has played extremely hard and fits that 3rd-4th line center role,” said Ruff at the end of the season of his only right-handed center on the roster.
“His physicality, his penalty killing. The way the year started, the games his line has impacted – in three of the first six wins they scored important goals. They’ve played a big role for us, and not only in the scoring column. When you look at penalty killing and the physicality…we call them 3rd, we call them 4th, I think some nights you could call them 2nd because they have played minutes like a top line.”
The Devils are set at center with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, but if McLeod can elevate his game a bit and consistently bring the same energy and physicality that he did this season – he may be able to carve out a role for himself for the next 4-5 years in New Jersey.
“I’m extremely happy with his role on this team and he’s accepted it. He’s a guy who’s good on face-offs, brings great energy, he’s physical, can get in on loose pucks,” added Ruff. “I looked at his scoring numbers from the year before and that wasn’t there obviously.”
“I just felt that as a fourth-liner he could get in and create havoc along with his linemates and be an important player for us. He skates so well, handles the puck well, we’re just trying to get him to shoot a few more pucks when he’s in certain situations. He’s fought for us, he’s scored big goals for us, and his skating plus his work in the face-off circle as a right-hander is one of the biggest assets we have.”
Zajac may be currently playing in the postseason with the New York Islanders, but his impact in New Jersey will still be felt for a while, even if he wasn’t able to win a Stanley Cup there. He worked extensively with the team’s young centers over the past five years and that wisdom has rubbed off on them for sure.
“I like to watch center-men that play both ends of the ice, can be thrown out there to win D-zone face-offs, on the penalty kill, and can cash in at the offensive end,” replied McLeod when asked about how he has been trying to grow his game. “Kind of like Travis Zajac who was here for so long, that’s who I’ve been kind of watching a lot this year, and he’s been a huge help for me.”
“I’ve just been trying to learn something each game, taking different things from different center-men around the league, and the guys I play with. Watching film/watching your game and noticing where I need to be better, where I need to be slower, where to be to get into the right spots,” he added. “Just trying to get better and knowing where to be on the ice.”
Will He or Won’t He Be Back?
New Jersey’s front office has some major decisions to make this off-season. They have to navigate the expansion draft, they also have two first-round picks (no. 4 & no. TBD), and GM Tom Fitzgerald needs to add some experienced wingers to his top-6. McLeod is among a handful of RFA’s that have to be re-signed, but none of them will be breaking the bank.
If we had to bet, we’d say pencil him in as the third-line center for the opening night of the 2021-22 season unless they find another right-handed centerman before then. But his play this past season should have at least earned him another look next season when the schedule isn’t compressed and filled with only seven different opponents.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.