These are interesting times for Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan McLeod. Since the loss of Jesse Puljujarvi and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to injury at the end of February, the 22 year-old has seen his ice-time and responsibility continue to increase. Despite having scored a single goal and picking up just a pair of assists over his past eleven games, he is playing the best hockey of his young NHL career.
Though he had started to receive regular minutes under former head coach David Tippett, we have seen McLeod elevate his game to another level over the past month or so. Jay Woodcroft took his first game behind the Oilers bench to see what he had on this roster. On that night, McLeod and Tyler Benson played a fourth line support role and saw just over seven minutes of ice-time.
After a rough opening period, Edmonton played a solid final forty minutes and went onto beat the Islanders 3- 1. Yet, the very next game we saw McLeod’s ice-time nearly double and he was inserted as a regular on both of the Oilers special teams. From that moment on, it’s become abundantly clear just how comfortable this head coach is with using the Mississauga native as one of his core guys.
Once the injury bug claimed Puljujarvi and Nugent-Hopkins within a nine day stretch, we have seen his usage spike. In fact, it started the game prior to Nugent-Hopkins hurting his shoulder against the Florida Panthers. In what was a 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the only forwards who played more were Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman…and McLeod actually led the way with 26 shifts.
Let’s think about that for a moment. In a game where the Oilers were playing the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions on the road and McDavid was dialed in, this kid had his coach throw him over the boards with surprising regularity. Since that game, McLeod has averaged over just over 18 minutes of ice-time and has since worked himself into a regular rotation inside the top six forward group.
Even though the team was in need of finding a temporary solution at third line centre and McLeod being the most obvious candidate, Woodcroft went in a different direction and it has seemingly unlocked the player. After getting looks on both McDavid and Draisaitl’s line, McLeod has settled in nicely on the talented German’s wing and is gaining confidence with every game he plays.
Last night’s resounding 4-1 win over the aforementioned Lightening is a perfect example. Another game in which he was kept off the scoresheet but Draisaitl, McLeod and Hyman drove the play all game long and were arguably Edmonton’s best line. A great sign that was made all the more impressive when we consider it came on evening when McDavid was in overload mode from the drop of the puck.
Be it even strength, on special teams or when he was away from Drasiatl for a handful of shifts, McLeod was all over the ice. His defensive acumen continues to improve with every game he plays, using his speed to get back in a support role in his own end or simply making the right read and his stick positioning to break up plays in all areas on the ice.
McLeod has morphed into a different player and the confidence he has gained is obvious. Again, the points have yet to come but it’s just a matter of time. He helped push the envelope in the offensive zone against the Lightning and was looking to attack to the net throughout. Not surprisingly, he registered a season-high with four shots on goal and hit the crossbar twice for good measure.
Whatever it is, something has clicked and the Oilers are a few weeks away from being in a favourable position. With every day that passes, the returns of Puljujarvi and Nugent-Hopkins become more of a reality. Once that happens, Woodcroft could find himself in a spot where he will have eight forwards who want and actually deserve top six minutes.
I can’t think of coach who wouldn’t want that sort of problem and it could not have come at a better time. While the narrative surrounding this club has solely been on the potential of them missing the playoffs, the group has started to round into form. Thanks to the resurgence of Mikko Koskinen, talk surrounding the Oilers goaltending has quieted and if that continues, this team will be in a good spot.
As a collective, this group has played a better all-around style of game since Woodcroft took over behind the bench and the results are starting to come. Plain and simple, a good chunk of the improvement we have seen on the ice goes to player deployment and that’s on the coaching staff. No one is benefitting from the “adjustment” more than McLeod and kudos to him for making the most of the opportunity.