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Michael McLeod was once of the New Jersey Devils best prospects. Now, we can’t figure out what to expect from his career.
The New Jersey Devils have a stacked prospect pool. They have amazing talent at the top, some really good complimentary pieces in the middle, and incredible upside on about two dozen other players. GM Ray Shero has accumulated a lot of draft capital in his time here, and he used it to make some great moves and picks over the years. The Devils could start the year with Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, Jesper Boqvist, Mackenzie Blackwood, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier on the roster, and all under the age of 23.

This is obviously very exciting, but just three years ago the most exciting prospect in the Devils system was Michael McLeod. As captain of the Mississauga Steelheads, he led the team with 73 points in 57 games. In the OHL playoffs, he was even better. He scored 11 goals in 20 games and added 16 assists. McLeod carried the Steelheads on his back. That was his game, he dominated in the offensive zone.

McLeod went to Devils camp in 2017, and he looked pretty good. He wasn’t going to make the roster, but there was a ton of promise. He didn’t end up getting any points in preseason, so it was clear he needed a little more grooming in Juniors. The problem is he ended up getting a knee injury before he went back to Mississauga.

It feels like he was never the same after that. He went back to his old team without Nathan Bastian, a good friend of his and also a good Devils prospect, and now he wasn’t 100 percent. McLeod pushed through for 38 games, and he attempted more heroics in the playoffs. McLeod scored 10 points, including six goals, in just six games. It wasn’t enough to beat the Barrie Colts in the first round, but it showed he still had something amazing to produce.

His first season as a professional went about as bad as possible. He was having trouble finding a role with Binghamton, and in New Jersey he just looked out of place. It was clear he was pushing too hard, and didn’t have confidence in his shot. He only took one shot per game. This, as he was playing with a less than stellar line. He seemed to give up quality shots to try to get his teammates involved.

So, after seeing what we have, what does it look like if McLeod hits his best case scenario?

After the 2017 season, he looked like the best case scenario was an 80-point player who scored 30 goals. McLeod had the right mindset to go to the net and make a play. That’s the kind of mentality that’s hard to teach. Now? That seems impossible.

It seems impossible if only because the Devils now have two centers on the roster that are younger than him. Hughes and Nico are 18 and 20 years old respectively. There’s nothing short of an injury that McLeod could do to pass them on the depth chart. Then, in the third-line role is Travis Zajac. John Hynes loves having him there, so that’s not a spot we see changing.

We’re talking about ceiling here, so eventually McLeod could take that spot. He’s also going to be competing with Pavel Zacha, but he may end up moving to the wing eventually. Opportunity is limited for McLeod now and in the future. That makes it difficult to find his upside.

Still, this kid has a lot of skill. We’ve seen his speed on the ice. When he’s at his best, his passing is second to none. There is still a playmaker in there somewhere. When talking about McLeod’s ceiling, we need to focus on a distributor more than a goal scorer. We just haven’t seen anything that showed he can score like he once did in Juniors.

At his very best, this feels like a poor-man’s version of Joe Thornton. Again, that’s the best possible Mikey McLeod we can expect. We’re thinking around 15 goals and 50 assists. If he reaches that ceiling, it would be amazing. He needs to do some work before getting there, but we’re nowhere near giving up, even if some fans have. This is a former 1st-round pick that’s still only 21 years old. There’s a lot more hockey to be played for him.

It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but on the second day of the NHL Draft in June, the 24-year-old Greenwich, Connecticut, native John Hayden watched one of his best friends, Steven Santini, get traded out of New Jersey. About 20 minutes later, the Chicago Blackhawks traded the forward to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for John Quenneville.

John Hayden #40 of the Chicago Blackhawks controls the puck against the Detroit Red Wings at the United Center on February 10, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Hayden was traded to the Devils on Saturday, June 22, 2019. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

“I was talking to a friend and I said Steven had been traded. My friend asked me if that could happen to me and I said it’s a possibility,” Hayden said this weekend at Prudential Center during training camp. “A few minutes later I was traded here. So I missed Steven by just a few minutes.”

A week later, his former college teammate at Yale, local Flanders product Kenny Agostino, left the Devils for a free agent deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. So Hayden is no stranger to the organization.

New Jersey Devils defenseman Steven Santini reacts after scoring a goal against the Ottawa Senators during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Newark, N.J. (Photo: Julio Cortez, AP)

Devils fans were first introduced to Hayden when his friend Santini briefly turned into a foe in late 2017. Santini, the mild-mannered defenseman, engaged in his first NHL fight with Hayden. It was an entertaining skirmish that resulted in Hayden throwing Santini down to the ice. It came just months after Hayden stood by Santini’s side as a groomsman.

Santini is now in Nashville battling it out for P.K. Subban’s former roster spot and Hayden is trying to crack a loaded forward group in Newark after playing 113 NHL games for the Blackhawks with eight goals and 14 assists.

“Johnny was a really great acquisition for us,” coach John Hynes said. “He’s a really smart player. He brings toughness. He’s got good hands, good hockey sense. He’s a very good player and I think he’s going to fit in well with how we want to be able to do things. It’s going to be up to him to earn where he plays and when he plays.”

He’s still looking for a breakout season. He knows management likes him because they gave up a former first-round pick they had long been high on and management says they like his size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and physicality.

Hayden himself likes the opportunity to show what he learned from a veteran group in Chicago.

“I learned how to be a pro from guys who have won a couple Cups and guys who have been in the league for a while,” he said. “I’ve been a part of three 1,000 game celebrations and there were other guys who were very close to that milestone which shows how much experience was there.”

New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider, right, looks to pass against Chicago Blackhawks right wing John Hayden during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, in Chicago. (Photo: Nam Y. Huh, AP)

There’s no clear answer as to who exactly fits on the fourth line so Hayden could be useful. The Devils suddenly have a few too many top-six wingers, which isn’t a bad problem to have, but they won’t carry someone like Jesper Boqvist just to sit him and what they’re missing is someone like Hayden who can play physical, be forceful and bring some energy on the back end.

“My game is straight-forward,” he said. “I want to play a hard-nosed game. I want to be relied on in all situations so that’s a combination of playing physical and chipping in offensively. Both of those things come from keeping it simple for me. If I play hard I think the rest of my game catches up and it takes care of itself.”

His best friend may not be here anymore but Hayden is happy to have his shot in New Jersey.

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