This was a year of inconsistency and ultimately disappointment for Michael McCarron. McCarron was a highly divisive selection on draft day and continues to be. Although there are positives to take away from this year, McCarron undeniably disappointed.
Of course, many aspects were out of McCarron’s hands. It’s clear the expectations were too high, from both London Knights and Montreal Canadiens fans alike. McCarron had to adjust to living in a new country and playing in a tougher league with a heavier schedule. In just his second OHL game, McCarron suffered a first degree separation of the AC joint in the shoulder, causing him to miss the following game. After his injury, McCarron struggled. But he also was never given a chance in the top-six (apart from during the WJC), no matter how well he played or how much better he played than other staples in the Knights’ top-six. Which, admittedly, wasn’t very often. Furthermore, McCarron showed little chemistry with Brett Welychka (especially in the first half of the season), but they almost exclusively played together. Dale Hunter and the rest of his bench were insistent on playing their veteran core. McCarron averaged just 11:59 of ice time in the games I tracked—hardly quality minutes.
However, there are much bigger issues that need to be addressed, and they all stem from the same area: McCarron was simply not ready for the OHL. McCarron echoed that statement in an interview with Rogers TV. Despite that, he got off to a good start in the OHL, scoring his first goal in his first game and grabbing his first assist the following game. After that, McCarron struggled.
McCarron’s play for much of the first half of the season was uninspired, lazy, and downright awful. Not only did he seem too slow for the speed of the game, but the 6’6” 238-pound forward looked too weak for the game. Despite his monstrous frame, McCarron would get rather comically outmuscled and peeled away from collisions more often than not. In between the lengthy stretches of soft play, McCarron tried to play the tough guy, but simply ended up taking undisciplined penalties. McCarron struggled to connect routine passes—a massive problem considering he basically refused to shoot or go to the front of the net. Instead of carrying the puck to the net, he typically brought the puck to the boards, where he would get outworked and outmuscled, ending any hope for an offensive chance. On the backcheck, McCarron couldn’t keep up. Not only did he look lumbering, but he would stop moving his feet, freeing up an attacker. And despite this notable lack of effort, he repeatedly looked exhausted. Too often it seemed like he wasn’t even an OHL-calibre player.
These alarming problems have all been worked on though. An uninterrupted summer of training will go a long way for the massive 19-year old who is still growing into his body. Improving his lower-body strength and conditioning are especially important. Considering his already massive frame, once he properly fills out, McCarron will be among the largest players in the entire sport.
After posting just 17 points in the first 43 regular season games, McCarron recorded 17 in the final 23 games. The turnaround can be pinpointed to January 25, when he made the switch to centre. Up to that point, McCarron had just a handful of great performances, including a physically-dominant effort against Windsor on November 11 and a four-point game versus Sarnia on January 1. Although the switch wasn’t permanent, it taught him a few key aspects of the OHL game. Playing centre forced him to keep his feet moving, pay more attention to detail—specifically in his own zone—and compete harder. He went from providing little-to-no value as a two-way player to a positionally smart player with a knack for breaking up plays with his reach. He’s still prone to poor reads, but his two-way game has come a long way. Once McCarron made the switch back to wing late in the regular season and for a few games in the playoffs, his solid play continued.
Over the course of the season, McCarron’s skill level improved. Perhaps the most noticeable of these was stickhandling. Despite the inherent awkwardness of stickhandling with such long reach, McCarron has soft hands. These soft hands improved considerably over the year, to the point where he was beating defenders in one-on-one situations. Along the boards and around the net McCarron has good hands, too. However, McCarron was often reluctant to use them.
McCarron’s skating also improved significantly. His first few steps are still clumsy, hampering his overall effectiveness. However, McCarron’s top-end speed is actually quite impressive considering his frame and somewhat awkward stride. Once he gets going, he’s like a run-away freight train, but rarely does he get the space to build up speed. Over the course of the season, every element of his skating improved, but he still has a ways to go. Improving his lower body strength will also help his skating ability.
After not being able to connect a routine pass, McCarron eventually found his timing in regards to puck distribution. Down low, he can be a clever passer, dishing out no-look or between-the-legs passes. However, apart from a few notable occasions (see: Beautiful Assist vs Windsor [22/03/14]), he rarely connects with them. In the defensive and neutral zones, he makes safe plays, but has a tendency to make sloppy passes. McCarron’s saucer pass is below-average, and tends to result in a turnover. The technical elements of his passing game need work, but it’s clear the creativity and vision are both there.
The final significant tool that saw improvement was McCarron’s shot. McCarron possesses a heavy, although erratic, wrist shot and a howitzer for a slapshot. Despite his shooting ability, he rarely shot early on. McCarron has shown flashes of having quality goal-scoring instincts, but he doesn’t venture to the front of the net enough. Additionally, McCarron rarely uses his slapshot, despite nailing the post with it on multiple occasions. McCarron went from struggling to shoot the puck high to being able to lift the puck up in a hurry. Through my own research (the OHL does not publish shots on goal by a specific player or shot attempts), I learned that he averaged just 1.6 shots on goal and just three shot attempts in the games I calculated in the first half. From his transition to centre on January 25 and onwards, he averaged a rather incredible 4.2 shots on goal and 6.8 shot attempts. Extrapolating the data shows a low 7% shooting rate. With more luck, confidence, and of course hard work, McCarron will find twine more often.
There’s a common trend here: McCarron doesn’t consistently use his tools. Part of that is lacking confidence and another is simply not knowing when to use them. His decision-making essentially needs an overhaul at this point. He still has a tendency to take undisciplined penalties and can make baffling decisions with the puck.
When McCarron is playing hard, smart, and confident, he causes havoc everywhere on the ice and creates scoring chances. McCarron can play like a bull in a china shop; like a heat-seeking missile on a mission to deliver bone-crushing hits. McCarron can also be a dominant puck possession player, combining his deceptive top-end speed, soft hands, hard shot, and massive frame. In fact, not only did he average a 66% Corsi rating in the games I tracked; but later on in the season, he was the driving possession force when he was on the ice.
However, that skilled and intimidating McCarron rarely comes to play. There’s tons of inconsistency, on a game-by-game basis as well as a shift-by-shift basis. He has so much potential, but yet he’s still so far away from achieving it. One game McCarron will look like the dominant package described above, but the next he won’t even look like an OHL-calibre player. That’s the problem with being as a raw as he is. He’s still very much a long-term project.
It’s important to remember where McCarron started. He was simply awful in the first half of the year, but he improved substantially. Where does that leave him now? Next year should be very telling. Even if teammates Max Domi and Bo Horvat are returned, McCarron will have top-six minutes to work with. There’s a great chance he will also be a regular on both the powerplay and penalty kill. Next year, McCarron will have to play himself out of a top-six spot, not into one.
The progress is encouraging, but McCarron needs to take a tremendous step forward next year.
NOTE: Much like my previous article, The Curious Case of Michael McCarron, when I set out to write this, I started with an open mind. This article doesn’t express who I personally wish was selected instead; or an article that focused on the just the good or just the bad. This is meant to be an honest, impartial evaluation of McCarron’s season and his future. I used multiple angles to examine his season, including my own eyes, statistics, and advanced statistics that I tracked. Disclaimer: I’m not a scout.