"What? Who? Why?"
That was in essence the collective reaction of many Habs fans as they watched the Canadiens select Michael McCarron with the 25th overall pick back in 2013. He wasn't on many radars when the Canadiens' turn came, but when the broadcasters spoke of his particulars, it became abundantly clear why he was on Montreal's. Standing at 6'5" - 6'6" depending on who you ask - and over 220 pounds, they finally had the hulking centre that pundits had long claimed was a desperate need.
At first glance it was easy to look at the pick as one made on physical stature alone, and the word bust was tossed around quite liberally, myself being one to do so. Add in a lackluster draft-plus-one campaign, and it seemed that the worst of fears could be all but confirmed. But hockey is a game of ups and downs, and McCarron rebounded from his first OHL season admirably, now appearing poised to become exactly the type of player the Habs were hoping he'd be.
In fact, he nearly doubled his goal output in only 25 games with the London Knights last season. He was subsequently traded to the Oshawa Generals, where he spent a little more time in a defensive role, and generating assists, but still finished the year with 68 points in 56 games, doubling his 34 points in 66 games the previous year. His Generals would go on to win the Memorial Cup, he was a major piece in that effort, and was named to the tournament all-star team for his efforts. It was as good a bounce back year as you could possibly ask of him.
I wasn't McCarron's biggest supporter, that much I cannot deny, but he has pretty much force-fed me my words at this point. Alas, now will come the true test for McCarron, as he enters his first year of pro hockey with the St. John's IceCaps. If he can continue to build on that successful sophomore campaign in the OHL, he'll definitely be a player to watch, particularly given the physical tools he possesses.
This is the highest McCarron has ever climbed on our top 25, as eight panelists saw fit to place him in the top 10. No panelist ranked him outside of the top 20, and his low vote of 16 came twice, once from Cara and once from myself. There is no clear consensus on McCarron, but the votes indicate a renewed faith in his ability to one day contribute to the club.
Top 25 Under 25 History
He is probably the least consistently-placed player in the history of our top 25. After he was drafted, his size was hard for many to ignore, and he debuted inside the top 15 as the 14th player in his first year of eligibility. Then came that lackluster first year in the OHL, and all of a sudden his stock dropped quite quickly.
In the summer of 2014, he managed to climb a little higher, but still found himself a ways off his debut ranking, at number 21. Suffice to say that his rookie OHL campaign really hurt him, but his bounce back year has vaulted him all the way back, and into the top 10.
The one thing you can't teach a player is how to be big and strong, and thankfully for McCarron he's just naturally like Hafthor Bjornsson on skates. He has the ability to completely dominate opponents in puck battles all over the ice, and when he has the puck, he's virtually impossible to separate from it. When he gets around the net? Forget about it, as you'd have better luck trying to push start a transport truck.
He also contradicts what you typically expect of a big man, in a few ways. He has solid puck handling skills, and great vision, which enables him to use his passing game to set up teammates. His acceleration leaves something to be desired, but when he gets up to speed he's quite a bit faster than you might expect.
His hockey sense is good, and he can play either on the right wing or up the middle with success. Given that Montreal does not currently have the best depth on the right side, this makes him an intriguing asset moving forward.
As mentioned, he is a good skater, but still needs some work in that regard. As crazy as it sounds, at his age he probably hasn't completely filled out his frame, so he looks a little clumsy at times. I'd expect that the coaching staff in Montreal and in St. John's will be focusing a lot on his acceleration, and if they can make strides in that area he'll be a force to be reckoned with.
There is also a slight lack of consistency. He did improve drastically from years one and two in the OHL, but even then he wasn't overly consistent in his production. He finished year two at over a point per game, but still shy of the type of production that screams legitimate NHL scorer. The improvement is definitely encouraging, but overall his numbers have led to some doubts about his scoring upside in the NHL.
Whether it will actually be a weakness or not remains to be seen, but his absurd size could actually make him a target. He's no slouch with his hands, but he's not a pure fighter either. The problem there is that a number of guys at the AHL and NHL levels may want to get a piece of him, and that isn't really something you want to see him doing on a regular basis.
Trevor Timmins was clear from the moment that McCarron was drafted that he would be a project player likely to see a few years in the AHL before making the jump to the big club. That said, he's definitely going to be a big guy to watch this year with St. John's, as this will be his chance to show what he can do against professional players.
His ceiling is likely that of a top-six power forward, or perhaps top nine, but depending on how he fares in the AHL, it's hard to say with any certainty what will become of McCarron. I'd expect a healthy amount of special teams work this year, and a role as key contributor offensively for the IceCaps. If he can produce there, he likely suits up for the Canadiens within the next few years, and may even get some call-up duties sooner than later.
The one thing I have to hope for beyond all else, is that he gets to keep his gloves on as much as possible in the AHL. It is a league with a fair amount of guys that use that fighting as their primary skill, and the last thing you want for McCarron is to be spending more time sitting in the box than working on skills that might eventually help the Canadiens win games.