Oilers’ McLeod Benefiting Under Jay Woodcroft

The Edmonton Oilers are 5-1 under new head coach Jay Woodcroft, and aside from their loss against the Minnesota Wild, they’ve looked like an entirely different team. What stands out from their wins is secondary scoring from players other than Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Who would’ve thought that spreading the ice-time around players on the team, and not solely relying on two individuals to produce offence, would help the team win games? I think the answer is everyone, aside from the former head coach.

One player that’s benefiting under Woodcroft is Ryan McLeod. The pair have a history with one another with their time together with the Bakersfield Condors in the American Hockey League (AHL). Since they’ve been reunited, the former second-round draft pick has been given new opportunities and with the coach’s trust, McLeod appears primed to take his game to the next level.

McLeod’s Confidence Has Increased Throughout the Season

McLeod played subpar in the first two games of the season, and was sent down to the AHL. He was given another opportunity with the big club, and was recalled when Devin Shore went down with an injury on Nov. 7. He’s stayed with the Oilers since, shown growth throughout the season, and he’s looking like an NHL regular each game. He’s 6-foot-3, missing a few chiclets, and can skate like the wind. Truth be told, I’ve double-checked his jersey number on a couple of occasions because I’ve mistaken him for McDavid the way he effortlessly skates through the neutral zone.

Ryan McLeod Edmonton Oilers
Ryan McLeod, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He’s on pace to average 22 points in 82 games this season, but the confidence in his game has increased since scoring his first NHL goal against the St. Louis Blues earlier in the season. On Dec. 31 against the New Jersey Devils, McLeod played his best game of the season, after he registered two assists In only 8:41 of ice time. Up until then, it was a rare occasion that he took shifts with McDavid, and he set up the captain for an easy tap-in. You’d think after a stint producing with the team’s elite, that he would be given more of an opportunity the next game? Maybe an increase in ice time? Another chance playing in the top six?

He didn’t receive either, which was a missed opportunity by former coach Dave Tippett to not take advantage of a young player playing with confidence.

McLeod Is Excelling Under Jay Woodcroft

McLeod and Woodcroft first worked together when the centerman joined the minor league team in the 2020-2021 season. It’s there where he honed his skills and became a point-per-game (P/G) player in the AHL. Also, Woodcroft had the benefit of getting a birds-eye view of McLeod’s complete game. In 2020, the coach said of McLeod:

Ryan’s been a very useable player in a lot of different circumstances. He’s killing penalties, he’s on the power play. I’ve used him on the wing at times, to get him more ice time or play him up the lineup. Sometimes we’ve run seven D and typically because he’s such a strong skater I can double-shift him and not worry about things.”

– Jay Woodcroft (from “Ryan McLeod Offers Size and Speed. But will He Score in the NHL?” The Athletic, 3/5/20).

Since Woodcroft has taken over coaching duties with the Oilers, McLeod has been given more responsibility. In the coach’s first game behind the bench, the centerman was placed on the fourth line, but in an unexpected move, he was placed on the penalty kill— something he hasn’t done at the NHL level. Woodcroft saw firsthand McLeod’s excellent ability on the penalty kill in the AHL and didn’t hesitate to make the switch.

Since he started killing penalties on Feb. 11 in a win against the New York Islanders, McLeod has performed remarkably well on the penalty-killing unit, and hasn’t been intimidated. He’s efficient on his edges and he’s able to get in lanes quickly. He’s also very smart. He makes clears out of the zone by having an active stick and intercepting passes. Moreover, his speed is apparent when transporting the puck, which also makes him a potential short-handed threat. In the 7-3 loss against the Wild, he stole the puck in the Oilers’ zone, skated up ice, and set up Zach Hyman for his first short-handed assist of his career.

Opportunity Knocks for McLeod

Not only has McLeod been given more responsibility, but his play as a whole has improved. He’s battling harder for pucks and quicker on his reads. He’s playing more minutes, but under Woodcroft he’s also receiving quality minutes. Other than the penalty kill, he’s taking reps playing with the team’s best.

In a scoring outburst on. Feb. 17 against the Anaheim Ducks, McLeod played one of his best games of the season. Jesse Puljujarvi left the game, and the centerman was placed on a line with Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane. McLeod broke up a play at center ice, received a pass from Kane, and then set up the former Hart Trophy winner for a tap-in goal.

He finished the night with two assists, 50% in the faceoff circle in 14:30 of ice time, and was named the second star of the game. Unfortunately, for Puljujarvi, he suffered an injury and early reports indicate he’ll be out of the lineup for up to four weeks. With the big Fin out of the lineup, Woodcroft gave McLeod another opportunity against the Winnipeg Jets to play wing on the second line, and he played 16:11— his highest total of the season. He had two 2-on-1 opportunities with Draisaitl, that they couldn’t convert on, but once again provided stability on the penalty kill. Despite a rough night in a loss against the Wild the following night, he registered a short-handed assist and tied a season-high with three shots on net.

Related: Oilers Losing Puljujarvi for 4 Weeks Will Have a Ripple Effect on Roster

With Puljujarvi out of the lineup, McLeod will be given ample opportunity to show his head coach that he can replicate his AHL success at an NHL level. Earlier in the season, I had him pegged as the team’s third-line center of the future, but does he have the potential to have a bigger role on the team?

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