When Michael McCarron was selected 25th overall by the Canadiens in June, the fanbase was immediately divided. Some felt McCarron was a reactionary selection made following the embarrassing five game playoff series loss against the Ottawa Senators and that McCarron was a low-upside selection who had no business going in the first round of one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. Detractors were fairly quiet following his strong preseason, but since his poor start to his Ontario Hockey League career, they have returned in droves. On the flip side, there are some who believe that this year is a “throwaway” year. In the development of the NHL’s future talents, there is no “throwaway” year. McCarron is far from a low upside pick, but he has undeniably struggled this season. Fortunately, McCarron has been rounding in to form lately, meaning there is good news for Montreal Canadiens fans.
McCarron was drafted in the OHL by the Belleville Bulls in the sixth round following the 2010-2011 season, a risky selection as McCarron was committed to Michigan State University. When McCarron departed the Honeybaked program he joined the United States National Team Development Program, instead of heading to the OHL. In McCarron’s first season (2011-2012), he scored nine goals and added 35 assists in 53 games (between the USHL and USDP) with the U17 Team. In the off-season, the London Knights swung a deal with the Belleville Bulls in order to acquire his rights, sending a fifth round selection and three conditional second picks to the Bulls. The following season, McCarron moved up to the U18 Team, where he picked up 21 goals and 26 assists in a combined 59 games. In his final 27 games played with the USNTDP, McCarron racked up 23 points, including eleven goals, good enough for fourth among all USNTDP U18 Team players in that span and second in terms of points-per-game pace. McCarron’s stock rose even further with a strong performance at the U18 World Junior Championship. McCarron scored twice and added three assists in seven games in the silver medal run, which tied him for second in Team USA goals and fifth in points.
The result of McCarron’s strong second half performance was a significant jump within the draft rankings. Central Scouting Services had him ranked 35th in their final North American skater draft rankings, compared to a “B” ranking in the preliminary rankings, which is reserved for mid-round selections. The Montreal Canadiens selected McCarron with the 25th overall pick. In the annual Lake Placid Summer Evaluation Camp, McCarron made the final roster, outlasting Canadiens fifth round selection in 2012, Brady Vail, who was among the cuts. McCarron grabbed two points in two games for Team USA White, but was held pointless in his final two games. In Canadiens preseason, McCarron was among the standouts, grabbing two assists and a plus-three rating in just two games.
McCarron decommitted from Western Michigan University and joined the London Knights, run by the Hunter family. McCarron got off to a solid start in the OHL, grabbing two points in his first two games. McCarron spent those two games in the Knights top six, commonly on a line with Josh Anderson (CLB ’12) and Chris Tierney (SJS ’12). Unfortunately, McCarron suffered a first degree separation of the AC joint in his shoulder late in his second game as a Knight. McCarron missed just one game and returned to the line up as the injury couldn’t be made worse by playing through it. McCarron, due to his injury and the return of Bo Horvat (VAN ’13), didn’t receive top six ice time when he returned. The lack of ice time didn’t stop McCarron from continuing to produce, as he grabbed three assists in his three following games. Since then, McCarron has been unable to crack the Knights top six other than during the World Junior Championship, which saw Anderson and Horvat–two staples in the Knights’ top six–join Team Canada.
For the most part, McCarron has simply appeared too slow for the OHL level. Not necessarily in terms of foot speed, but in terms of decision-making. Too often he’s fallen behind the play, only to react too late. McCarron has struggled to connect simple, routine passes and struggled to receive passes as well. Sometimes he stays too high in the offensive zone, not allowing himself to use his best abilities, such as his play down low. Furthermore, McCarron has lacked intensity this season. For such a hulking player, McCarron would reasonably be expected to finish his checks more often than he does and drive the net with a higher level of regularity. Some games McCarron gets rather comically outmuscled by players much smaller than him and is a complete non-factor physically. Simply put, McCarron certainly hasn’t been a consistent physical presence. Due to his struggles, McCarron has often found himself benched for extended periods of time, particularly in the third period.
Historically, players coming from the USNTDP haven’t struggled in their CHL careers, but the list is very short. New York Rangers 2011 first round pick, J.T. Miller, is probably the closest comparable to McCarron, taking into consideration the age at which each joined the OHL and the strength of their respective teams. However, Miller was a consistent contributor throughout the year. Other similar players include Tyler Biggs, Charlie Coyle, Ryan Hartman, Stefan Matteau, Phil McRae, Jim O’Brien, and Brandon Saad, but they all joined the CHL from the USNTDP at different points than McCarron. All of the aforementioned players, save for McRae (who joined the OHL at 16), substantially out produced McCarron. Strictly looking at production, McCarron is most akin to a high-end 16-year old rookie in the OHL or a first-year draft eligible. The short list of comparables gets even shorter once other factors are taken into consideration like amount ice time, age, rawness, and size. There simply is not any other player quite like him.
With no true comparables, it hard to place expectations on McCarron’s season. However, most would agree that for a player of his size, skill, age, and draft pedigree, 23 points in 48 games topped off with inconsistent and lackadaisical play simply isn’t good enough. McCarron played 82 games last season between the USNTDP and international play. While both the strength of competition and placement of games are absolutely factors, the overall length is not. McCarron’s ice time, or rather lack of, has been a commonly used excuse for his lack of production. It’s definitely true that a portion of his best performances have come when he’s seen lots of ice time (see: LDN vs PLY 12/29/13, LDN vs SAR 01/01/14); however, in order to receive ice time he has to perform well. McCarron doesn’t play the penalty kill and essentially played himself off the powerplay as he has picked up just three powerplay points.
McCarron has struggled for long stretches of time this year, but breaking up those stretches are a handful of absolutely dominant performances. Performances where he outplayed Knights’ stars like Max Domi (PHX ’13) and Bo Horvat (VAN ’13) and the opposition’s star power. McCarron’s best performance early in the season was a game against the Windsor Spitfires on November 11th. McCarron would later pot two goals against the Belleville Bulls by driving the net hard. In the OHL Outdoor Double Header, McCarron was pointless, but posted his best performance up to that point. McCarron was flying around the ice, hammering everything in sight and controlling the play. McCarron earned the trust of the coaching staff and was on the ice for the game-tying goal late in the third period. McCarron’s most productive game was a four point effort against the Sarnia Sting, showcasing the aggressiveness and excellent playmaking ability that has largely been absent in his young OHL career.
Throughout the season, McCarron has shown glimpses of what’s possible in the future. Whether that be a burst of speed to blow past a defender, or a nice move to create a scoring chance. McCarron’s skill level isn’t a problem. McCarron gets around quite well for a player his size, even if his first few strides are rather cumbersome. On top of his skating, McCarron is also a fairly skilled stickhandler, possessing good hand-eye coordination and occasionally displaying soft hands for a player his size. Despite owning both a powerful wristshot and slapshot, McCarron doesn’t consistently utilize them. While McCarron hasn’t been consistently physical, when he does come ready to play, he makes his presence felt in a big way. Not only can McCarron flatten the opposition but he also keeps his stick on the ice and will go for the puck if it is the better option. McCarron, at his best, is a physical specimen, who combines his strength, skill, and reach to be a dominant powerforward package. Although McCarron has had just a few performances like that, there’s encouraging signs that there is more to come in the future.
McCarron’s move to centre, although a small sample size, has seen him improve considerably. Against the Kitchener Rangers on January 25th, McCarron centred the Knights fourth line, consisting of Chandler Yakimowicz and Tait Seguin. McCarron played arguably his best game as a Knight. McCarron was a wrecking ball, bulldozing everything in sight, and also grabbed two assists. In the few games since, McCarron has been shuffled all through the lineup, occasionally seeing ice time with London’s top players and he’s continued to be productive, with six points in his last five games. McCarron remains as a centre, typically displaying confidence both with and without the puck. While McCarron still has a ways to go in his own zone, his head is always on a swivel and he’s quite vocal on the ice.
The occasional glimpses of dominance have become more than just a shift here or there in recent days–it’s growing into periods and games. Chances are he will never be an incredible stickhandler, or an excellent skater. But to be a productive NHLer, he doesn’t have to be. McCarron possesses the size, smarts, and ability to be a productive NHLer. Now it’s up to him to bring a consistent effort and improve his overall game. If McCarron’s recent performances are anything to go by, he is finally on the right path. Encouraging news for Montreal Canadiens fans indeed.