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Can Michael McCarron take the next steps to develop his skating ability?

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The Canadiens’ first-round pick in 2013 needs to improve his stride, and Brian Boyle serves as an example of how he can do so.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

When Michael McCarron was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, many people were excited to get the big-bodied centre that the organization needed. He had a lot of qualities: good hands for his size, able to make plays in tight relatively easily, and an improving offensive touch. His presence along the wall and in front of the net could pose a lot of problems for opposing teams.

His skating was a weakness that he had to improve on his path to the NHL. It was not necessarily that he lacked speed; when he got going, McCarron rarely had trouble keeping up, even if he wasn’t a speedster. But his acceleration, something that is often a problem for bigger players, was lacking.

Through the years, the issue became more glaring as the first-round pick started to compete at the National Hockey League level. He could fill in at the bottom of the lineup, but his lack of quickness was one of the main reasons why he couldn’t establish himself as a regular.

In Junior hockey, it is very much possible to hide acceleration deficiencies by not letting go of momentum. You can get away with not really stopping on defence until your team is ready for a breakout, and immediately jumping out of the zone when it becomes possible. There is also more space to accelerate in.

The stop-and-start style of the NHL isn’t the same game. There are many more demands, especially in terms of defensive play, and the ability to accelerate quickly becomes very important.

“He knows what he has to work on, everyone knows what he has to work on: his foot speed, the first couple of strides. He has that same stride all the time. You have to be able to separate first. That’s what he needs to do.” — Martin Lapointe, Director of Development

What Lapointe is referring to in that quote is that McCarron is basically always striding forward instead of really accelerating with stepping motions, which is far from optimal to get up to speed quickly. An acceleration from a stop on skates is in many ways akin to a runner’s start.

There have been reports that McCarron has worked on that aspect of his game. As it was probably mentioned to him every off-season in his player evaluation since his draft year, we can safely assume that they’re true. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much progress to show for the work that has likely been put in.

This video is made of clips taken from his Junior days with the Oshawa Generals in 2015 (#55) and some others from this past season in his stints with the Canadiens (#34).

McCarron has always accelerated wide, with his knees driving outward instead of forward as he tries to gain speed. From a stop, he isn’t pushing straight back all that much except for his first step, but is instead mostly pushing to the side. This doesn’t contribute to a forward momentum gain as much.

With the years, he has improved his form slightly, and has worked in the gym. This has helped him in his explosiveness a bit, but the general acceleration remains quite similar.

This is a clip from his draft year, where we can recognize the same McCarron (in white) fighting through his first few steps to try to catch up to the loose puck.

The compound issue of deficiencies in acceleration is that it takes a lot more out of the player to start the engine back up again after a stop. Poor form doesn’t just limit power, it also makes skaters a lot more tired in their shifts as they are not using their weight and muscles to skate efficiently. Instead, a lot more energy is spent for less movement.

McCarron doesn’t have to become an effortless skater to have a shot at a good NHL career, but he has to improve his acceleration to the point where it becomes a tool in his game. I don’t think the answer for him is solely in the gym.

There is a lot of talk about improving his acceleration with strength training and foot speed, but working on those aspects without proper skating technique may be a wasted effort.

Brian Boyle is a good example of a towering player who has managed to change his skating through on-ice work.

At the end of the 2009-10 season, at age 24, Boyle was a replacement-level NHLer for the New York Rangers, six years after being drafted by the Los Angeles Kings 26th overall. He had an average of 8:25 of ice time in a year where he only contributed six points.

In 2010-11, Boyle’s time on ice almost doubled and he finished with 35 points, including 21 goals. A lot of the credit went to Barb Underhill, a former figure skater turned power-skating coach, for the work she did with him in the 2010 off-season. The 6’6” player became a more agile and speedy skater, but also a more explosive one after having a lot of the same problems with his starts as McCarron, notably a wide and noisy acceleration stride.

Achieving a better stance on his skates, a lower knee-bend, and a straighter back, but also through correct leg motions, Boyle became quite a good accelerator, even compared to smaller players who tend to have an easier time with skating. He gained footspeed, which is the area of improvement that was pinpointed by Lapointe for McCarron. This last characteristic is as much a product of correct form as it is an innate ability of a player.

By accelerating wide, you lose power, but you also have your feet glide on the ice instead of gripping it. The grip action is what happens when you push using the front part of the skates’ blades. Blades that grips the ice, instead of sliding on it, allow for immediate pushes and, in turn, more footspeed. If a skate travels laterally when it lands with the player in motion, it delays the next stride significantly, which is what’s happening with the Habs player.

Compare the slowed down clips below (though the angles aren’t the best) highlighting the acceleration by both McCarron and Boyle.

McCarron’s skates are gliding from the second step he takes in his acceleration, while Boyle, whose pushes are more straight back with his knees driving forward, is not gliding until around the fifth push he takes. He catches himself with his blades and grips the ice for the next push. He is gaining momentum forward in what looks like a running motion, while McCarron is sliding after his pushes from the get-go, preventing him from increasing his speed.

There is a lot of work that goes into changing how someone skates. Flexibility plays a part and repetition is a must. Not all players are willing to buy-in, or are fully able to do it.

But time is running out for Habs prospect. He has to figure out a way to get his game to an NHL-caliber level, and some of it goes through developing better skating ability. It has been a known issue for a while, and the patience of NHL clubs isn’t without limits.

McCarron needs a lot of commitment to that aspect of his game, and it will require work with someone dedicated and talented enough to instruct him.