When Michael McCarron was drafted 25th overall in 2013, even the most optimistic considered him a long-term project. Now three years after he was selected, McCarron already has 20 NHL games under his belt.
He began the 2015-16 season in the AHL with the St. John’s IceCaps, where he racked up 20 points in his first 20 games, including a hat trick on October 17th and a five-point game on November 14th. It didn't take long for him to start playing both special teams situations and facing top opposition; a role that was exclusively given to Gabriel Dumont for years beforehand.
The mid-season lull that often hits first-year pros limited McCarron to just eight points in 22 games from December to January. Included in that same stretch was a 17-game goalless drought, though he continued to perform reasonably well in other areas.
A brief two-game audition in December set the stage for McCarron's 18-game stint in the NHL from late February through March. While McCarron's statistics certainly weren't flattering — two points in 20 games, along with a -4.83 relative Corsi-for percentage* and -19.05 relative goals-for percentage — he looked good at various points during his first big-league experience.
McCarron's five most common NHL linemates were Torrey Mitchell, Stefan Matteau, Jacob de la Rose, Lucas Lessio, and Mike Brown, while he started just 25.84% of his shifts in the offensive zone (compared to 36.15% in the defensive zone). It was rather strange how Michel Therrien managed the rookie, not placing him in a position to succeed. The situation grew even more baffling when Therrien criticized McCarron's work ethic, which promptly saw McCarron returned to the AHL.
Interestingly enough, McCarron saw success in controlling the quality offensive opportunities while on the ice, producing a relative scoring-chances-for percentage of 7.76. He also owned the highest pass-completion rate on the team in late-March; rather surprising given his tendency to send hard passes too far ahead of his teammates in his junior days and his time in the AHL to that point.
*All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Corsica.hockey
Aside from the highest vote of fifth and lowest of 13th, McCarron was consistently voted between eighth and 11th. After three previous years of divisive voting, McCarron is becoming universally accepted as a top talent in the Canadiens organization.
Top 25 Under 25 History
He debuted at 14th in 2013, but dropped seven spots in 2014 after his frustrating adjustment to the OHL. After his strong 2014-15 campaign, split between the London Knights and the Memorial Cup-champion, the Oshawa Generals, McCarron soared to the 10th spot on the list, where he remains this time around.
Although he was a poor possession player in his 20-game NHL stint, past history and his skill set indicate that it's a strength of his game. He single-handedly creates extended periods of offensive pressure through his forechecking prowess, hand skill, strength, reach, and willingness to shoot from any and all angles. Although uncommon, instances where he carries the puck in transition result in fluid exits, entries, and scoring chances.
He possesses the power to be a long-range threat, but for now his accuracy remains erratic. He thrives at drawing attention to himself along the boards, only to reverse and drive the net or find a teammate with a deft pass in-tight. He undoubtedly scores most of his goals around the net, where his soft hands, body positioning, and overwhelming strength command respect.
Since a switch to centre in the 2013-14 campaign, McCarron's play without the puck has improved rapidly. A proactive approach and lengthy reach make McCarron excellent at possession-changing plays such as intercepting passes and disrupting the puck carrier. He finds success with his attention to little details, such as creating passing lanes by driving the net, antagonizing defenders without taking a penalty, or leaning in for a big check only to let up and steal the puck instead.
Skating will always be a talked-about concern with McCarron. He has some separation ability in open ice, but those rare instances are obscured by the stop/start, east-west motion that's most prominent in the NHL. A lumbering, if not clumsy, first few steps noticeably handicap his acceleration, and he doesn't generate enough power with his crossovers.
What concerns me the most about McCarron's game is the skill component. The flashes of second-line (albeit in a complementary role) skill occur with some regularity, but not often enough to project them to the NHL-level. When McCarron wants to dangle around a defender, shoot a laser from up high, or fire a flashy pass, he will do usually do it successfully. Otherwise, he often limits his touches to the boards and around the net.
A player's style rarely changes, particularly in the pros. After all, it's that style that allowed him to attain his dream of playing hockey professionally. I would argue that McCarron has already undergone a style change, shifting from the fast-paced, skillful plays that allowed him to pot 22 goals in 25 games with London, to a more methodical, perhaps less reckless, player after the trade to Oshawa. That trend has continued throughout his first professional season.
There's nothing wrong with McCarron becoming a more well-rounded player, but sometimes it's at the expense of better scoring chances. Even if he turns into a Brian Boyle-type, that's fine, but I believe he has the potential to be even better.
The forward logjam places McCarron on the outside looking in coming into training camp. However, the AHL is most likely the better place for the power forward to develop the offensive component of his game.
There are no definitives, but McCarron appears to be on the right track to become an NHL regular. The greatest question is if he can alter his style to make skilled plays more often, or if he will become a third- or fourth-liner.