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2018 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #23 Michael McCarron

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A divisive first-round pick in 2013, McCarron takes a tumble down the rankings five years later.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Michael McCarron is big. Not just big in stature, but big in the way he plays on the ice, and he’s capable of being more than just a grinder who eats up defensive-zone minutes.

However, after a great sophomore season in the OHL, where he captured a Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals, and then a promising rookie year with the St. John’s IceCaps in the AHL, he has failed to reach that same level of play consistently.

Should he turn it around, McCarron could be destined for a role as an everyday fourth-line NHL player. To become that, he will need to fix a few flaws in his game and work on driving the offence once again.

Image credit: EliteProspects

Since his rookie season in St. John’s, McCarron has seen his offensive numbers decline heavily while also piling up penalty minutes in both the NHL and AHL. There is a caveat, and it’s in the way that McCarron and his coaches made a change in his playing style heading into this past season. Despite having success as an offensive player in the AHL, the NHL staff saw him primarily as a player to take defensive minutes on the fourth line, and his minor-league regime was altered to match.

That disconnect has thrown McCarron’s game into a state of disarray. He was counted on to be an offensive presence in the AHL, but has been thrown to the wolves at the NHL level. Regardless of the role he’s playing in the NHL, continuing to hone his offensive skills should be the primary focus going forward, even if McCarron is destined for a bottom-six NHL role. Having offensive talent to add is becoming more crucial as the game evolves.

Voting

Contentious as always, McCarron was all over the ballots, to a high of 15th with my own vote, down to 30th for three panellists. The community had him pegged close to his final position, as he finished 22nd on the combined member ballot.

Top 25 Under 25 History

After maintaining a spot as a top-10 prospect on this list for three consecutive years, McCarron tumbled down the rankings following his worst season as a pro so far. He performed well after a solid rookie year in the AHL with the St. John’s IceCaps, and a lack of top-end prospects in addition to some hope he’d round back into form kept him fairly high.

This year, a massive influx of talent and a disappointing third professional campaign combined to see the forward drop down the order.

Strengths

Above anything else in his game, McCarron’s greatest asset is, and will continue to be, his size. At 6’6” and 230 pounds, he’s quite literally head and shoulders above his teammates and most opponents. When he’s on his game, he is an immovable object around the net, and a destructive force along the boards, capable of dominating puck battles and throwing devastating checks.

When he’s utilizing that frame for good, he’s almost impossible to defend. He can easily protect the puck from defenders around the net and can either shoot it himself or dish it off to a teammate.

His playmaking is underutilized. He’s not at the level of a Nikita Scherbak, but the Michigan native is more than capable of threading a pass across the offensive zone.

When he’s around the net he makes life miserable for opposing defences and goalies, but it’s not just due to his large frame. McCarron is capable of using his hands for more than doling out punches in bunches; he’s great at deflecting pucks, or stealing them away from opposing defenders.

Even if he isn’t creating the most points on the team, the ones he is generating are predominantly primary in nature. Out of his 24 points last year, 19 of them were goals (seven) or first assists (12). When he is contributing on offence, he’s usually either driving or finishing the play.

That is what the Montreal Canadiens as an organization should be trying to nurture in him. He likely won’t be a major points guy in the NHL, but he needs to at least be able to have that part of his game built up to have some modicum of success in the future.

Weaknesses

McCarron has many things in his toolkit that could help make him a great piece in the future for Montreal. However, the consistency is just not there in a way that makes it a likely outcome.

At the AHL level, he’ll be a ghost on the ice until he takes a penalty, or chooses to fight some unknown player for whatever reason. He is a terrifying person to drop the gloves with at least; just ask Alex Petrovic of the Florida Panthers.

As pointless as fighting is already, having a developing prospect throw down so often isn’t helping anyone, and last season McCarron’s penalty minutes skyrocketed. It’s hard for him to improve his offence if he’s sitting in the box for more than two minutes per game.

If he is placed to waivers and gets assigned to Laval this year — for his own development he probably should be — the staff needs to first focus on his discipline, because the team is far better off when he’s on the ice at the AHL level.

As for the NHL, unless his skating begins to drastically improve (more on that here), it’s hard to see how exactly he’ll keep up with a game that’s become increasingly about speed. Smart positioning is all well and good, but without the ability to keep up in plays and little offence to back it up, the future looks rough for McCarron’s NHL hopes.

Projection

While he’s currently out of a contract, it seems rather unlikely that he won’t be back in the organization at some level next season. If the term “show-me deal” was ever more accurate, I haven’t seen it yet; this year might be the make-or-break one for the 23-year-old forward.

He’s shown in the past that he can combine his physical play with offensive flair, and was a leader on the ice in the AHL. His struggles at the NHL level are not surprising. Much like Jacob de la Rose, whenever he seemed to find his groove he was recalled from the minors, then either given a difficult deployment or scratched. Doing that is only ever going to hurt a player’s development, especially for one still with several areas in need of improvement.

There is reason to hope that things can be turned around going into this upcoming season, and part of that is the Canadiens’ massive overhaul of their coaching staffs at both levels. In the NHL Dominique Ducharme takes over as the forward instructor, while Joël Bouchard, Daniel Jacob, and Alex Burrows head up the staff in Laval.

If there’s one group who could help mould McCarron into an NHL regular, the combination of Bouchard and Burrows might just be it. Bouchard is known for getting the best out of players who may have fallen by the wayside. Burrows played a similar role in his career to what McCarron projects as: a highly physical pest, with a nose for the net. Having that guidance might be just the thing to swing McCarron’s career back on track.

If he falters, there is heavy competition for centre spots behind him. Players like Lukas Vejdemo, Jake Evans, and Hayden Verbeek will all be looking for centre roles within the organization this year, and it’s on McCarron to prove he still deserves one. This competition doesn’t stop there: just down the line are Ryan Poehling, Jacob Olofsson, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

It’s always a bit clichéd to put an extreme label on a prospect’s upcoming season, but with the resurgence of depth down the middle, and the lack of performance in recent seasons, this is a turning point in Michael McCarron’s development. A new coaching staff is in place, and can perhaps help turn his career around. But if he sticks with the overly physical, penalty-minute amassing, low-output style he played this past year, then this could be the last Top 25 Under 25 profile we see for him in Montreal.