From the moment he was picked 25th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft by the Montreal Canadiens, Michael McCarron has been the most divisive prospect in the Canadiens organization. There are some who see a borderline giant who can play, and laud it as a necessary addition to a relatively small-in-size prospect pool on a relatively small team, and some that completely wrote McCarron off as a talentless checker who will probably never make the NHL.
The reality, as always, is going to be somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. McCarron's first year in the Ontario Hockey League was hyped up pretty heavily in the summer, and resulted in a thud of unmet expectations. There was talk of the London Knights using McCarron with Bo Horvat and Max Domi on the top line, but he couldn't hack it there and was moved to the third line for the first half, struggling mightily.
It wasn't until he was shifted to center that McCarron started producing, but he just wasn't getting much ice time. Through 66 games McCarron put up just 14 goals and 20 assists, good for just tenth on the team, and really that's more like 12th if you consider that Nikita Zadorov put up 30 points in 36 games, and Gemel Smith put up 27 in 29 games.
However it's not all bad news for McCarron. His estimated per-minute scoring was actually respectable, tied for 56th among 18 year old skaters in the OHL in even strength points per 60 minutes. That's nothing to write home about by any means but it does put him in a more respectable tier of prospects than initially thought, within spitting distance of Jeremey Gregoire, Frederik Gauthier, Will Carrier, and Carter Verhaeghe.
There was talk among EOTP's staff over the summer that after finishing 24th in the midterm ranking that McCarron had a real chance t slip out of the top 25 entirely after a poor year, but a better second half along with the graduation of several big names saw him rise a bit. Still though, two of our panelists rated him outside the top 25.
McCarron's biggest strength at this point in his career is ... probably strength. McCarron is obviously a beast of a man, which should give him a natural leg up on his competition when it comes to winning puck battles, body checking, and maintaining possession of the puck while being checked.
Though you wouldn't guess it from the way people talk about him, McCarron does have quite a few high-end tools at his disposal. He has a heavy shot that's fairly accurate, solid puckhandling abilities, and surprisingly good vision for finding his linemates. McCarron is also a solid straight line skater, with a bit of a slow start but high top-end speed. When he gets to his top gear he's incredibly tough to contain.
And that's exactly when McCarron is at his best, when he's aggressive and playing with pace, he is a bull in a china shop that is nearly impossible to stop. At the Canadiens' summer development camp every time he had the puck within five feet of the net the opposing defense went into pure panic mode, because they knew he couldn't be muscled off the puck, and he has the reach to play keep-away if need be. These skills led to McCarron being a strong possession driver in London, even though his scoring rate was below what was desirable.
One interesting thing I noticed about McCarron at scrimmages was that he seems to be ahead of the game as a big man in board battling small, quick players. Most extremely large players have trouble with this; ask Zdeno Chara how much he used to hate Brian Gionta, or currently hates Brendan Gallagher. McCarron is gangly but seems to be able to effectively work his stick in tight quarters and maintain a low center of gravity to battle the speedier players.
One of the problems with being as big as McCarron is, is that at 19 you still kind of look like a newborn deer. When McCarron skates, you can see his ankles wobble a little bit, as it seems like his body's muscular structure hasn't quite matured at the same rate that his body has grown. He has absurd strength, but it's raw and unpolished at the moment.
One criticism that will follow McCarron for his entire career is that he's soft. Is he actually soft? Well, he's not a very good fighter, but that's irrelevant to the game of hockey. McCarron isn't soft at all, but because he's so large, and doesn't regularly wallpaper guys into the following month, he's going to carry that label. He's going to get into fights with smaller players and lose, and be called a wimp, because he's not a fighter but will be expected to fight.
The main reason why McCarron is so low on this list though, with all these natural skills and a frame most players would die for, is because he hasn't yet put these skills all together for game play. McCarron can do everything well in practice while drills are focused on one or two skills, but during the game when you have to be aware of your surroundings and mix everything together while being creative, it just doesn't click.
When players move from the AHL to the NHL there is usually a period of time where you can see that they think they have more time to make plays than they actually do, and even at the junior level this kind of problem is evident. His shot is good, but he takes so long to prime it that he rarely gets a great look.
It's important to recognize with McCarron that the Canadiens don't expect him to make an impact at the NHL level any time soon. He was always going to be a project, and Trevor Timmins has stated recently that they expect McCarron to need another year in junior, and two in the AHL before he starts getting a crack at the NHL level.
This has made many question whether or not McCarron should have gone the NCAA route, allowing the Canadiens four years before committing to him with an entry level contract, and more time to practice and work out, growing into his body while playing against tougher competition. However McCarron himself mentioned that part of his struggles in the OHL last year were due to not being used to the grind of that kind of schedule, and how he learned that he needed to overhaul his conditioning in order to handle the rigours of it.
That could bode well for his NHL development, so I'm not prepared to say the Canadiens made the wrong move in asking him to commit to the London Knights, although if McCarron doesn't get more ice time next year, there is legitimate reasoning to question.
Because of the nature of what McCarron is as a prospect, he's likely never going to rocket up this list, but the risk the Canadiens took in drafting him is more than understandable if he manages to make the NHL, because the possibilities of what he can do are tantalizing.