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Video Rising young pivot represents another tricky negotiation for Edmonton Oilers


One of the defining characteristics of the most recent version of the Edmonton Oilers was a vastly improved performance from a traditional weak link: the bottom 6.

Before we go any further, let’s clarify that on this team I define the “bottom 6” as players who play when superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are resting. Meaning on some nights the “bottom 6” might be a bottom 5, bottom 6, bottom 8 or bottom 9, depending on whether the coaches combine 97 + 29 on a single line, and whether they use 11 forwards or 12.

Think back just 2 years ago to the Silo Season where the Oilers saw nothing but Canadian opponents for 60 games. Their supporting cast of forwards up front included the likes of Alex Chiasson, Gaetan Haas, Josh Archibald, Tyler Ennis, James Neal, Devin Shore, Zack Kassian, Kyle Turris. Among them, Jujhar Khaira stood out as the only depth forward the organization had drafted and developed.

Late in that 2021 season, Khaira and the others were joined by 21-year-old Ryan McLeod, on the vanguard of the next wave of internally-developed Oilers. A second-round pick in 2018 (#40 overall), the swift-skating McLeod was completing a whirlwind season that included double-digit games played in the Swiss National League, the American Hockey Leage, and the National Hockey League.

McLeod played the final 10 games of the NHL season plus all 4 in the playoffs. While he barely made a dent on the scoresheet, he impressed most observers with his terrific skating chops and ability to transport the puck with speed if not necessarily purpose. Concerns were raised — as they had been in every pre-draft scouting report about the player — about his tendency to play on the perimeter, but impressions were generally strong.

Two years later McLeod continues to progress, even as those early scouting reports retain some fundamental truths. Great skater? Check. Good checker? Check. Strong at transporting the puck between the 20-yard lines? Check. Good in the red zone? Not so much. Hard on the puck? Some nights, yes. 

Still, McLeod’s numbers crept northward in his second full NHL season, from 9 to 11 goals and from 21 to 23 points even as he played 20% fewer games than in his generally successful rookie campaign. That was due to 2 separate injuries that each knocked him out of the line-up for 4 weeks. First a high ankle sprain cost him most of December, while an upper body injury in the late going saw him return to the line-up just 2 games before the playoffs.

McLeod’s 23 points were bought and paid for. He recorded 9-11-20 at even strength, 2-1-3 on the penalty kill and 0-0-0 on the powerplay. (He did get some looks on the second unit, but nothing to show for it after 2-3-5 on the PP in his rookie year.)

His most common linemates (100+ of McLeod’s 645 minutes at 5v5) were Warren Foegele, the since-traded Jesse Puljujarvi, Derek Ryan, Dylan Holloway, Matttias Janmark … bottom sixers all. Every so often he’d get a look on Draisaitl’s left wing, but it never seemed to last long; McLeod’s services were more in need in the middle of the ice.

Where he performed just fine. Individually he saw his scoring rates take a very nice jump, from 0.56 to 0.84 Goals/60 at 5v5 and from 1.29 top a very respectable 1.86 Points/60. That was 8th among Oilers forwards, third line production; but ranked 149th of the 382 attackers who played 500 5v5 minutes. That’s a second-line rate.

While arrows pointed mostly in the right direction, It was an up-and-down season for McLeod, sometimes both at once. He spearheaded a spectacular third period comeback at Madison Square Garden with a trio of third-period assists, only to suffer an injury before that period was out.

His best run came early in 2023 when he fired home 7 goals in 12 games. For that run, he seemed to find his mojo around the net, but it was fleeting. In his other 45 games, he scored just 4 times. At times it seemed his feet were too fast for his hands, or his head, as good chances went to waste.