For Michael McLeod, his draft-eligible season is being experienced with all the comforts of home – not only playing for his hometown Mississauga Steelheads, but also playing alongside his younger brother Ryan.
“It’s been great for both of us, always playing with each other. I think it’s important for him so that he can be comfortable in his rookie season,” McLeod said. “He saw what I went through last year and that experience – not scoring at the start. Now he’s picking it up and I think it’s going to help both of us.”
The home cooking is apparently sitting well with the elder McLeod as he is currently ranked sixth in ISS Hockey’s 2016 NHL Draft rankings – one spot ahead of teammate Alexander Nylander – and sixth overall on NHL Central Scouting’s list of North American skaters.
“It’s pretty cool, but everyone has their own opinions on where they want to rank us,” McLeod said. “All that really matters is what the teams think and what they’re looking for.”
And when it comes to McLeod’s game, he has got a solid grasp of what he needs to do and be.
“I think they just want me to be that two-way center, that 200-foot guy who can also make plays,” he said. “Being in all situations – that’s what I try to do. I try to win all of my faceoffs, I try to help my teammates in all situations.”
After a solid rookie campaign that saw him put up 12 goals and add 17 assists in 63 games, the 6’1”, 185-pound pivot, who turned 18 on Feb. 3rd, has averaged over a point per game in his sophomore season, with 19 goals and 56 points in 49 games. He has also gone from a -23 rating last season to a more respectable +8.
The McLeod brothers also have the advantage of leaning on some extended family for advice and support. The McLeods are very close with the Strome family, and Michael counts the Erie Otters’ (and Arizona Coyotes draft pick) Dylan as one of his best friends.
“One of my good buddies is Dylan Strome. We’re really good friends and he went third overall,” he said. “Whenever something big happens – the top prospect game or just leading up to the draft – I’ll talk to him about it and he’ll tell me what to expect, and just how to do stuff in certain situations.”
Strome said he is excited about watching his friend go through the process and was particularly effusive in his praise for Michael’s performance at the recent CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
“He’s been one of my best friends for a long time and we played on the same minor hockey team. For a while there, I helped him through the OHL draft year because that’s a stressful time,” Strome said. “He gets to stay at home and live at home, so there’s not too much you can tell him about the billeting side of things, but on-ice, I just told him what to expect. There’s lots of stuff going on, there are lots of people watching you and there are going to be people at every game, but you just have to play your game and have fun.
“I love watching him play – he’s so much fun and he’s so fast. [At the Top Prospects Game] he was just flying all over the ice; he does that all the time. I know he’s going to be a top pick – top 10, top 15 maybe – I think top 10. He’s a really great guy and I try to help him out because he is kind of like family.”
McLeod said that Strome’s biggest advice has been about enjoying the moment and having fun.
“He gave me a lot of advice, but he likes to talk about – well, he really didn’t have too much trouble last year, being on the Erie Otters and scoring two, three points a game – but he told me to just have fun with it,” McLeod added. “He said it’s probably your most fun year in hockey so far, so have fun with it.”
So is McLeod able to have fun?
“It’s a little stressful at times, but at the end of the day we’re playing hockey and having fun,” he said.
Strome said he is happy to be there for his friend, but he also knows the value of letting him go through the experience.
“I let him go through the process on his own. When he has a good night, I’ll text him and say ‘Good night!’ or ‘You had a good game and keep it up.’ But other nights he may have no points and be -1 or -2, and it’s all right,” Strome said. “It happens to everyone and it happens in everyone’s draft year.
“Everyone has their ups and downs, but that’s why hockey’s the best game in the world – you get to come back a night later, two nights later, maybe four nights is the max, there’s always going to be another game and you’re always going to have another chance to redeem yourself and do the things you want to be doing, so I think he knows that and he respects that. He knows what he has to do.”
McLeod has experienced the draft through the Stromes and has enjoyed it, but he admits that it is a little different now that it is happening a little closer to home.
“Our families are pretty close, we grew up together. When Ryan went it was pretty big and when Dylan went it got pretty crazy,” he said. “But it’s getting pretty real now – it’s my draft year and it’s actually about to happen to me, so it’s pretty cool.”
There are a number of players on the Steelheads who are attractive draft prospects. McLeod said he knows that with that talent comes the added scrutiny of scouts, but it is something that he is trying to avoid focusing on.
“I think there’s going to be scouts at all of our games in Mississauga, but you just have to keep playing how you’re playing,” he said. “You can’t let it get to your head. All of us know that at the end of the day, there’s always going to be someone watching, so you have to play 100 per cent of the time.”
And while he doesn’t want to let the scrutiny change the way he plays the game, it does put a premium on his preparation.
“Approach, no. But reflect, you want to see what you did right and what you did wrong. You want to play how you play and not try to be someone else,” he said.
McLeod admits to a little bit of draft board watching – both amongst the opponents and with guys on his team.
“Kind of. Whenever you’re playing a team like London, you know they’ve got a bunch of guys [who are draft-eligible], so you’re always going to want to be better than them,” he said. “It’s fun playing with Nylander and [Nathan] Bastian [ranked 23rd by ISS; 19th in NA by Central Scouting] because they’re both guys that can go pretty high, so they bring out your best.”
As for the remainder of the year, McLeod is focused on helping the Steelheads make the playoffs. He also knows he has some personal improvements to make en route to the draft.
“I have a few personal stat goals, but I just want to keep getting better,” he said. “I watch the games after we play them and I look for little things I can do to keep getting better. Just slowing down, picking my spots better, being in the defensive zone and looking for opportunities.”
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