After being selected by the New Jersey Devils with the 12th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Michael McLeod made his NHL debut last season. He suited up for 21 games and played in the final 20 games of the Devils season that ultimately became a dumpster fire. The 21-year-old picked up his first three career points/assists and two of them came in the final three games.
Fast forward to this season and McLeod started the season in the AHL again but was recalled and joined New Jersey during a recent road trip. His season debut came in Colorado due to the ‘Taylor Hall Situation’ and the next night McLeod recorded his first two-point game in the NHL with two assists in a win over Arizona.
McLeod (and most of us) thought he had finally netted his first NHL goal in that game, but it was changed by the end of the first period by the league’s official scoring to fellow rookie Jesper Boqvist’s goal. McLeod admitted to us he was unsure if it was his goal until the first intermission, and added he was just happy to contribute in any way.
“Coach gave me a heads up at morning skate that I might be in, but then I looked around right before the game and everyone seemed like everyone was good to go,” recalled McLeod. Hall was a late scratch for precautionary reasons so McLeod didn’t have any time for any self-imposed Jedi Mind Tricks when he made his season debut. “It was nice not thinking about it much and just playing that night,” he added.
A few nights later when we asked if he felt Hall being traded opened up a spot and ice-time for him in New Jersey, he humbly replied that he was just happy to be in the NHL and willing to play whatever role the coaching staff gave him. While some fans may want to see McLeod get top-6 or even top-9 minutes, so far the coaching staff has chosen to ease him into their lineup.
Mikey Likes It
Maybe unlike last season, he is more prepared for that role because of the work that he has put in during his time with the AHL’s Binghamton Devils, and the tutelage of the coaching staff there. This season in 24 games with Binghamton McLeod has put up 13 points (4g-9a), mostly playing on the team’s second or third line.
“Playing in Bingo this season has been huge for me; getting those minutes and learning how to play the right way,” explained McLeod. “I wasn’t playing first-line minutes down there, instead I was getting ready for a different role like the one I’m playing right now here in New Jersey.”
“Coach (Mark) Dennehy works with me all the time, watches my video with me, and he’s pretty hard on me in a sense of where I need to be on the ice,” he revealed. “I really appreciate having him as a coach there.”
Youth Gone Wild
Barring a trade, McLeod is part of the young core that is expected to be regulars at the NHL level in New Jersey one day in the not too distant future. His fellow SuperBuddy, Nathan Bastian, has yet to be recalled this season but he was impressive enough in his stint last season that we will see him sooner rather than later. McLeod told us that the two always keep in contact, even being in separate leagues, usually catching up with each other nightly via FaceTime or phone calls.
Another part of that young core is goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood who has taken the reigns as the no. 1 goalie in New Jersey. “He’s been great,” McLeod said. “You can see him continuing to get better and he is one of the hardest workers that I know.” Blackwood was drafted the year prior to McLeod and the recently-turned 23-year-old is 11-10-4 and already surpassed his career-high in games played, starts, shutouts, and wins.
Like Blackwood, McLeod looks different this season. Is it confidence? Player evolution? Maturity? All of the above? “I worked a lot this summer on getting faster, being quicker on the ice. I really focused on those things,” replied McLeod when asked. “Guys are responding in situations when we need them to. If we go down a goal no one is holding back, or trying to do too much.”
It sounds like maturity and just the natural evolution of a player finding his way at the professional level. He may have said he is ‘just happy to be here’ but McLeod is earning himself more games and more ice-time in the future with his play on the ice and his attitude off the ice.
It may not be this week or next month, but McLeod is well on his way to becoming an NHL regular. Not everyone can just walk into the league and dominate like Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid. He’s definitely putting in the work and with a little more seasoning in the AHL he will find his niche in the league and in New Jersey.