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2016-17 IceCaps Season Review: Michael McCarron needs a stable development plan

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After a strong rookie year, it was a step backwards for the former first-round pick.

NHL: New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Michael McCarron is an extremely interesting prospect in the Montreal Canadiens‘ pipeline right now, as even two years into his pro career, we haven’t gotten a true read on what his ceiling might be.

In his rookie season in the AHL, McCarron was a force on the ice — physically and on the scoresheet — for the St. John’s IceCaps. In 58 games the behemoth forward notched 38 points, and earned an All-Star Game invite. This year saw a similar rate of production with 19 points in 32 games, which means he didn’t progress offensively, but that’s not worrying given his strong play overall.

The NHL has been much less kind to McCarron, with 51 games played and just two goals and five assists to show for it these past two seasons. In the 31 games he played this year McCarron tallied one goal and added four assists, while playing primarily on the fourth line under Michel Therrien and Claude Julien.

The lack of production is worrisome, but it’s understandable given that his deployment was to eat minutes in the defensive zone, not score goals. What is more distressing is that McCarron in the NHL hasn’t looked like the dominant force he was in the AHL, or in his junior career.

As you can see in the chart above, when he wasn’t a healthy scratch McCarron failed to drive play for the Canadiens, usually failing to break even on possession. While the numbers don’t look good, there’s a good chance that playing under Claude Julien in a new system could help the young forward hone his game, and bring it up to a level he’s capable of.

Perhaps something that should be of more concern is how McCarron has attempted to make his impact at the NHL level thus far. He’s a physical player, and that’s fine. In fact, it’s encouraged. If he wants to play the body and be mean along the boards, that fits his strengths perfectly, and it’s how he dominated the AHL in his rookie year.

The concern is that he might be battling to keep a spot with his fists not his play. McCarron has the talent to be more than a goon in the NHL, and this upcoming year will be arguably the most important in the young forward’s career if he is to prove that.

There’s still a lot to like about McCarron’s game going forward. In the AHL he still plays like a dominant offensive force, whether it be at centre or on the wing. He uses his frame well to battle along the boards and shrug off opposing defenders to set up offence. While playing on a line with Charles Hudon and Chris Terry, McCarron had his greatest success, as he was able to draw coverage and open up chances for his linemates.

His size also benefits him by allowing him to drive the net, and fend off opposing defenders with easy. It’s not easy to stop a 240-pound 6’6’’ monster from crashing into the crease for loose pucks, and it’s where McCarron made his living in the AHL this year.

Unfortunately due to his big size, the IceCaps coaching staff this year shoehorned him into a Brendan Gallagher/Andrew Shaw type role. Parking him in front of the net to be a screen, rather than letting him be a force along the boards where he had a large amount of success last year. Just because he’s gigantic doesn’t mean he should be anchored in front of the goalie. It’s a terrible way to utilize a prospect who has far more talent than that.

If the plan is to keep him in the AHL next year, like the Habs did with Jacob de la Rose to great success this year, then there’s still a few things for McCarron to work on.

Chief among them is his discipline, as he needs to rein in the bad penalties that come from losing his temper. Early in the season he was assessed a game misconduct and a two-game suspension for headbutting Justin Hickman of the Providence Bruins. He was also assessed a misconduct for a borderline hit on Travis Dermott late in a game against the Toronto Marlies while his team was trailing once again.

There’s a lot of potential in McCarron. He’s got the skill set and ability to become a productive forechecker in the NHL. He can bang bodies, and score goals, all while standing tall at 6’6’’, and that’s something that most NHL GMs would drool over.

He does require some more seasoning to his game. Much like de la Rose in previous years, when McCarron has started to find his groove he’s been recalled to the NHL to play limited defensive minutes, or to be a healthy scratch. This isn’t conducive to developing your top prospects, especially when they end up desperately trying to find ways to stick out than playing to their actual strengths.

While there’s a chance McCarron could become an NHL regular next year with a mass exodus of fourth-line players, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he had a full season in Laval either. In the AHL he’d be leaned on to drive the offence, and be a major piece on their penalty kill.

It’s up to the Canadiens, however, as they must decide what they want from Michael McCarron this year: a grinding fourth-liner or a potential middle-six centre with decent offensive potential? Either way it’s a big year for the young forward, and hopefully one that sees him grow towards his ceiling, and not take another step back like this past year.