How good is Ryan McLeod, and what could his next contract look like?

Photo credit:© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
8 months ago
While the majority of Edmonton’s work for this summer seems to be finished, they still have two pending RFA contracts left to sign: Evan Bouchard and Ryan McLeod. 
On July 5, McLeod was one of a handful of players to file for salary arbitration. His arbitration hearing date is set for August 4th. Last summer, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto also filed for salary arbitration, but both reached a deal with the Oilers prior to their hearing dates. 
McLeod, a 23-year-old center drafted by Edmonton in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft, is coming off a one-year deal at a cap-hit of $798K. Last off-season, Edmonton was exceedingly tight to the cap, and McLeod remained unsigned at the beginning of September. However, he eventually did the team a huge favour by signing just over the league minimum. I highly doubt he takes another pay cut this season, so it seems quite likely that he’s (rightfully) looking for a raise this summer.
How much does McLeod deserve? Just how valuable is McLeod to the Edmonton Oilers?
Let’s begin with the good, and there is a lot of it when it comes to McLeod. Specifically, let’s discuss his impact on the bottom-six.
In Edmonton’s first full season with McDavid and Draisaitl in 2016-17, the team outscored opponents 71 to 69 without those two on the ice at 5v5, equating to a 51 percent goal share. Edmonton’s depth scoring that season was a significant factor as to why they broke their 11-year playoff drought; unfortunately, the success didn’t last long. For the next four and a half seasons, Edmonton’s bottom-six had a goal differential of 41 percent or less. The Oilers were consistently crushed when their star players were not on the ice.
It took a drastic turn following Dave Tippett’s firing, and Jay Woodcroft’s arrival. The bottom-six goal share immediately saw an increase of nine percent in the second half of 2021-22, and this past season, they out-scored opponents 73 to 60, equating to an exceptional 56 percent goal share. Of course, Woodcroft deserves a significant chunk of the credit, but so do the players, most notably McLeod.
Without McDavid and Draisaitl, Edmonton controlled 53 percent of the goals, and 58 percent of the scoring chances when McLeod was on-ice at 5v5. For years, the Oilers searched for a competent third-line center, someone who could drive play when the team’s two superstars were on the bench, and they finally have one in McLeod.
In the past two seasons, McLeod has been on-ice for 2.28 5v5 goals against per 60; no current player on Edmonton’s roster has a lower (better) goals against rate. To add on, per PuckIQ, the Oilers have out-scored elite competition at a ratio of 15 to 7 with McLeod on-ice at 5v5 in the past two seasons. The sample against elites isn’t huge, but these results are a sign that McLeod is gradually emerging into a true shutdown defensive option, and should get an opportunity at a tougher role next season.
There are numerous things McLeod does well to achieve these strong on-ice results. Perhaps his greatest strength is his smooth skating. His speed and effortless stride is certainly something that pops out when you watch him, and it was a big reason why Edmonton drafted him in 2018. He uses these superb skating abilities to his advantage, as he ranked third on the Oilers in controlled zone entries per hour this past season, only behind McDavid and Draisaitl. He also ranked fourth among the team’s forwards in controlled zone exits per hour.
As for McLeod’s defensive play, he’s one of the team’s best forecheckers. In the regular season, he was fourth on the team in opposition zone exit disruptions per 60, and in the playoffs, he was second on the team in forced turnovers. Alongside McLeod’s strong zone exit results, he led all forwards in defensive-zone retrievals per hour. He’s a responsible player that’s consistently involved down low in his own zone.
With all of that in mind, what about his offence and production?
In 2021-22, McLeod scored 1.29 5v5 points per 60, ranking 269th in the league among all players with 700 TOI. In 2022-23, it improved to 1.86, ranking 144th in the league. In a technical sense, there are 192 top-six players in the league (6 per team), so this is second-line production. 
McLeod scored at a rate of 0.84 5v5 goals per hour this season; that’s actually slightly higher than Leon Draisaitl’s scoring rate of 0.8. Of course, bottom-six players tend to have higher per 60 rates due to fewer minutes played, but this is something to note.
That said, McLeod was an extremely streaky scorer this season. He began the year with three goals in his first six games, but then went 22 straight games without a goal. In his next twelve games, McLeod scored seven goals, but in his final regular season seventeen games, he had just one goal. McLeod didn’t score a single goal in the 2023 playoffs.
Moving forward, one of his primary areas of improvement is shooting the puck at a higher rate. He’s averaged just 5.56 5v5 shots per hour in the past two seasons, which ranks 428th out of all players with a minimum of 500 minutes. In the 2023 playoffs, McLeod didn’t register a shot in 7 of his 12 games.
In general, McLeod needs to drive to the net more. He’s great at entering the offensive zone with control, but once he does, he often tends to look for the pass, rarely driving to the slot or the middle of the ice. He has the speed and skill to consistently do it, and I also believe he genuinely possesses a solid wrist shot, but he simply doesn’t utilize it enough. The same could apply to his passing, as McLeod ranks 3rd on the team in total shot assists per hour, only behind McDavid and Draisaitl, but 8th in high-danger passes per hour.
Overall, McLeod does have flaws, and his offensive ceiling does seem somewhat limited, but he remains an incredibly useful player nonetheless. He’s an excellent skater, he’s fantastic at transporting the puck, he forechecks hard, he’s consistently active in the defensive zone, and most importantly, the team tilts the ice when McLeod is playing. These are all qualities you would look for in a good 3C. So, how much could he obtain on his next contract?
When it comes to NHL contract values, on-ice stats such as GF% and xGF%, or microstats such as zone entries and exits, are hardly used. While I expect that to eventually change at some point in the future, today’s salaries are exceedingly reliant on production totals, especially for forwards. McLeod’s contract will likely be lower than his actual on-ice value.
McLeod had 21 points in 71 games in 2021-22, a point-per-game rate of 0.30. This past season, McLeod produced 23 points in 57 games, equating to a 0.40 PPG rate. In total, he has a 0.34 PPG rate in the past two seasons combined. Here’s a list of potential contract comparables for McLeod, players at a similar age with similar production rates:
Aside from Dellandrea, who has just one full season under his belt, all of these players signed contracts around $1.4M to $2M, which seems like a reasonable range for McLeod. To add on, EvolvingHockey has a contract projection tool that attempts to predict a player’s potential contract using past contract comparables, and for the most part, it’s been quite close to accurate. For a one-year deal, they project McLeod at $1.3M. This does seem a bit on the lower side, but considering his production rates, a contract around the ~$1.5-1.8M range seems fair for one year.
Noah Cates, just a few months older than McLeod, was signed to a two-year contract at an AAV of $2.675M by the Flyers this summer. Cates has 47 points in 98 games in the past two seasons (0.48 PPG), and even received some Selke and Calder votes this season. McLeod’s camp could be asking for over $2M, but Cates’ contract could drive McLeod’s price down at one year.
In terms of ability, I believe McLeod does deserve over $2M, and if the Oilers possessed more cap space, I would be perfectly fine with giving him even more on a multi-year deal. But as mentioned previously, contracts are heavily reliant on simple production totals, and McLeod’s comparables generally place him below that number.
Furthermore, signing Evan Bouchard is an even bigger priority this summer. Right now, every penny counts and the Oilers would likely want McLeod to sign closer to $1.5M. A potential contract at that cap-hit would leave roughly $4.1M in cap space to sign Bouchard with a 21-man roster.
I would be open to moving Warren Foegele or Cody Ceci (with a cheaper replacement) to free up more cap space to sign Bouchard and McLeod to longer deals, or even exploring a way to move Jack Campbell’s contract, but it’s quite unlikely any other major move occurs this summer. As a result, Edmonton will likely be forced to squeeze both of them to shorter and cheaper deals.
It will be interesting to see if McLeod and the team can agree to a deal before his arbitration hearing date.
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