With only three points (all assists) in his first 21 NHL games, there is still a lot of room to grow for Michael McLeod, who was the first round pick (12th overall) of the New Jersey Devils in 2016. He has been finding his way and adjusting to playing against men during his first foray as a pro. Remember a year ago he was still in the OHL with Mississauga.
Between the AHL and NHL this past season McLeod saw action in 76 games (mostly at center) and finished the campaign with a total of 36 points (6g-30a). The silver lining in a lost season for the Devils at the NHL level was winning the Draft Lottery where they will have the first overall pick for the second time in three seasons. Other silver linings were the fact that a handful of younger players like McLeod were able to gain valuable experience at the NHL level. Now as they head into the offseason to prepare for training camp in September those young players have an idea of what they will need to do if they want to be NHL regulars going forward.
On McLeod Nine
McLeod made his NHL debut on Nov. 30, but it wasn’t all that memorable. He only played 5:36 and following the game, he was returned to the AHL for more seasoning. He wasn’t ready, but the team had a litany of injuries and they needed a body for a game. McLeod himself admitted that he wasn’t ready at that moment, but he didn’t sulk or pout when he returned to the Binghamton Devils. He knew what he had to work on.
“I needed to work on making plays faster, my face-offs too; I think I was 1-for-6. I really improved on that. In the D-zone too, mirroring the D and moving the puck out of the zone, better exits. That’s what I’ve been working on the second half of the year,” McLeod told us following his second recall in late February.
He was comfortable with his game in the AHL at that point, but the NHL game is a different animal. McLeod knew that he had to work on the small details of his game because that second call-up could come at any time.
“They tell us everything we need to work on down there and you work on it to a tee, right? When you come up here and you have your chance you want to use those things you’ve been working on and do the details of the game you need to do,” he said. “Your stick details are huge up here. Sticks on the
Six games into his second recall he was starting to feel more at ease in New Jersey. “I feel a lot more comfortable out there. I’m playing my game, how they (the coaching staff) want our line to play – hard, get in deep, and try to work them over on the wall, win face-offs. I think I’ve been doing that and I can still improve on a lot of things. I’m happy to get my feet in the door here,” McLeod would say after a game in early March.
For coach John Hynes, having young players abound on the roster led to a lot more teaching moments than maybe he would have envisioned after the Devils made the playoffs a year ago. But he embraced the challenge and he and his staff were constantly working with the young players, especially after the trade deadline.
“Michael’s continuing to make progress which is good, and it’s nice to see him make progress from his first call-up until now. Now he’s getting
“But it seemed like he was a little bit jittery with the puck, or wasn’t as confident. It comes down to decision making and his decision making tonight was good – he made a few more plays and it’s nice to see him progress.”
“He just seems more comfortable with the puck and in offensive situations. I think some of that is experience, but it’s also his first couple of games in the NHL – sometimes a guy is afraid to make a play or afraid to make a mistake,” Hynes added. “It’s not because you’re telling them not to, it’s just they don’t want to…being in the NHL versus the AHL is a big difference as far as pressure and accountability. I just think you see a young guy who feels a little bit more comfortable and understands when he has time and space what plays are available.”
One of the aspects that helped McLeod’s comfort level over his final 20 games in the NHL was the fact that because of injuries and trades so many of the players he competed alongside in Binghamton were alongside him in New Jersey. “Yeah it’s obviously easier coming in here and having familiar faces that you played with for pretty much this whole season,” the 21-year-old from Mississauga admitted.
It also helped that his best friend and fellow ’Super Buddy’ Nathan Bastian was also going through his first NHL games at the same time. While McLeod wasn’t able to pot his first NHL goal this season, Bastian was and it was on a night when the two were both in the lineup.
“He was obviously so happy and I was so happy for him when I saw it go in,” McLeod said of his longtime friend, unable to hide his smile. “He’s been scoring a lot of goals like that in front of the net. He’s really good at finding those areas and tipping it in the net. He’s going to be a really good net-front player. If he keeps going that way he can be a really, really good player in this league in those areas.”
In the OHL and in the AHL McLeod primarily played at the center position (often with Bastian on his wing), but towards the end of the season, Hynes and his staff used him a few times on the wing with varied results. With no hope of making the playoffs, why not try a few things out and see what you have amongst your prospect pool.
“We’re not sure yet if it’s going to be center or wing for him, so it’s another good opportunity for us to see him in that position in NHL games. Sometimes there’s a little bit less responsibility playing wing but Michael I think can play both. It’s just a matter of what is he going to grow into more, winger or center,” said Hynes after a late-season game.
If he does stick as a center, he has a valuable teacher to learn from in longtime Devil Travis Zajac, who is one of the best face-off men in the league year in, and year-out. “I’ve just been watching him a lot. He’s a player who I try to play my game like, his role,” admitted McLeod. “A two-way center, winning draws. He’s just so good at it and I think he’s one of the best in the league.”
“Face-offs at the NHL level you kind of have to bear down more, watch some video on the other team before the game to see what their tendencies are,” McLeod explained. “Guys really take pride in what they do in the face-off dot so you have to do the same. Just bear down on every draw.”
In 21 games as a rookie, McLeod won 70 of the 132
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.