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Michael McCarron should spend the season in the AHL

The Canadiens must repair the mistakes of last season or risk ruining another first-round pick.

Montreal Canadiens vs Ottawa Senators

When Michael McCarron was drafted 25th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 2013, it caught many prognosticators by surprise. Although his main feature is his size, the 6’6” forward was ranked 35th among North American skater by the Central Scouting Bureau, and he’s deceptively good with the puck for his size.

“Hockey sense is not a problem,” said Trevor Timmins at the time of the draft. “I don’t want to make comparisons with other players, but he’s built in the Milan Lucic mould. He is well built and has many great years ahead of him.”

The Canadiens admitted that McCarron would be a long-term project and that a slow, careful development would be required in order to get him ready for the professional ranks.

He completed his junior career in exemplary fashion. He led the Oshawa Generals to an OHL championship tallying nine goals and nine assists in 21 playoff games, was named to the CHL All-Star Team, and took home the Memorial Cup title.

He began his professional career in 2015 with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps with a blast, scoring his first professional hat trick in only his fourth game, and putting up 20 points in his first 20 games. He started as pivot for the second line before quickly graduating to the top line and centring Charles Hudon and Bud Holloway. The organization’s gamble in drafting him seemed to be paying off in spades and everyone’s skepticism appeared to be ill-founded.

By December of 2015, after scoring his second hat trick for the IceCaps and generally being a dominant player for the team with his tenacious work along the boards and surprising ability, he earned his first call-up to the Canadiens. It was a short experience, as it was quickly determined that he wasn’t ready for the NHL. By the second game he saw a mere 5:30 of ice time before being sent back to the AHL.

The McCarron that returned to the IceCaps wasn’t the one that left for a chance in the NHL. He hit a rookie slump, only managing eight points in 20 games; a far cry from the point-per-game pace that he saw at the start of the year. The IceCaps struggled as a whole and ended up falling out of playoff contention.

Nonetheless, McCarron was called to represent the IceCaps at the AHL All-Star Classic for his overall success in his rookie season.

A second call-up to the Canadiens came his way in February as the team dealt with major injuries. He played 18 games for the Canadiens in a limited fourth-line winger role and put up only two points, clearly struggling while playing with pluggers like Stefan Matteau and Mike Brown.

McCarron’s linemates with the Canadiens in 2015-16

Somehow things got worse in his second season.

McCarron once again started the season in the AHL, centring the top line with Hudon and Chris Terry. He remained offensively successful, with 11 points in his first 20 games and playing, on average, about 21 minutes per game.

He was recalled in early December with things immediately going downhill. In 15 games with the Habs, McCarron played less than 10 minutes on numerous occasions.

The good news was that he spent them at centre. The bad news was that he was, once again, saddled with dead-weight players like Dwight King. An injury to Alex Galchenyuk allowed him a brief stint with Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov on the power play unit, but his quality of linemates quickly dropped to players like Bobby Farnham at full strength.

McCarron’s linemates with the Canadiens in 2016-17

A third call-up in mid-February coincided with the arrival of new head coach Claude Julien. McCarron quickly fell out of favour with the new coach, ending up a healthy scratch for 11 out of the final 24 regular-season games. During the 13 games he did play, he got on the ice for less than 10 minutes on nine occasions.

Instead of the organization admitting that perhaps he needed more development and could get valuable experience with the IceCaps, who were in the midst of a very tight playoff race, they stubbornly kept him in the NHL.

Trying to carve out his place on the team, he turned to pugilism, leading the Canadiens in fights with five despite playing only 31 games with the team.

In a short order, the Canadiens had turned a top-line AHL centre into an occasional fourth-line face-puncher. It was a complete and utter regression in almost every aspect.

To add insult to injury, while the IceCaps were in the playoffs and could have used McCarron’s tenacity and talent, the Canadiens kept him as a healthy scratch for the first five games of their own first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers. During the final game prior to their elimination, McCarron finally played, but it was for just 6:54 of ice time. By the time he returned to the IceCaps he was a mere shadow of his former self.

The Canadiens have consistently fumbled the develop their first-round picks in recent years, and Michael McCarron is verging on being the organization’s next victim. They have failed to give him a platform in which to develop to his ceiling, which is believed to be a high-end, third-line shutdown centre role, and instead bogged him down in his prime development years into a filler role on the rare chance he gets the call for a low-minute game.

Pacioretty once made some serious waves back in 2010 when he stated that he’d rather play top-six minutes in the AHL than be a bottom-six player the NHL because he sees himself as an offensive player. McCarron might be best served to take the same attitude, and the Canadiens should be taking the initiative to ensure he’s placed in the best situation for future success.

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