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Michael McCarron is at an early career crossroads

Michael McCarron is an extremely interesting prospect for the Montreal Canadiens. He possesses great defensive vision, has a solid scoring record at the junior and AHL level, and let’s face it, he’s gigantic. It’s the Holy Trinity for Habs fans, who have been begging for a big centreman for more than a decade now.

The issue with the young forward right now is he’s delving far too much into the fisticuffs at the NHL level, and that’s a questionable development path for a first-round pick.

McCarron is known to be a physical player, he loves to battle along the boards, and can throw some absolutely devastating hits with his large frame. In his rookie AHL season last year he combined both, and it made him not only an AHL All-Star, but one of the hardest players to shut down in the league.

With 38 points in 58 games and a long NHL stint sandwiched in the middle, it looked like many questions regarding McCarron’s offensive game were put to rest. Even his slow start this year saw flashes of great offensive instinct, especially alongside Nikita Scherbak and Charles Hudon.

This season McCarron has been in the NHL for 25 games, primarily on the Canadiens’ fourth line, often rotating spots with Torrey Mitchell, Brian Flynn, or the newly acquired Steve Ott and Andreas Martinsen. In those games, McCarron has one goal and four assists, and has also racked up five fighting majors. The production isn’t terrible, under Michel Therrien the fourth line took a lot of defensive zone starts, not exactly a conducive situation to scoring goals.

The production isn’t what concerns me. It’s the racking up of fighting majors.

Fighting really doesn’t help teams win games, and has a negative effect on the players’ bodies. With deadline acquisition of Steve Ott, and Andreas Martinsen, in addition to having Andrew Shaw on the team, you would assume McCarron would be free to focus on his offensive game.

Instead the rookie leads the Canadiens in majors, including five fights, despite all the added grit and toughness. Not an ideal scenario for a highly touted prospect.

The optics of this make it seem that McCarron believes if he fights, and proves his toughness, he’ll be rewarded with more time in the lineup. This should remind fans of another former first-round pick, who was also known for his physical play and gargantuan size. That player is of course Jarred Tinordi, who was infamously traded for John Scott last season.

Tinordi broke in to the NHL and while he was never an offensive standout, he played a steady defensive game in Montreal. However, with every little hiccup in his game, a stint in the press box followed, and thus he adapted his game. Tinordi fought everyone he could get his hands on to make a positive impression on his coach. This came with major issues however, as Tinordi suffered a severe concussion in a fight against Andrey Pedan in the AHL, when he was knocked out cold, then dropped square on his face. Since the trade he’s been suspended for performance enhancing drug use, and has struggled to find consistency in the AHL with Tucson.

This isn’t to say that McCarron will suffer the same fate, but the Habs need to be wary about allowing one of their few good prospects continuing down this path. They’re extremely thin on prospects at centre, and allowing your top prospect at the position  become nothing more than a pugilistic fourth liner sets the team back in the long run.

Let his skill shine through. If he needs more time to develop offensively, then let him play top minutes in the AHL, and let Ott trade punches with the opponents’ most useless players.

It’s unclear what McCarron’s ceiling is in the NHL. Yet it is clear that allowing him to be shoehorned into an enforcer role isn’t going to help him reach that ceiling. Marc Bergevin or Claude Julien may need to pull the young player aside, and just let him know that the way to make an impact doesn’t need necessarily need to be with his fists. Standing up for teammates is great. Putting your career in a holding pattern, however, is not.