On Saturday the Montreal Canadiens agreed to terms with unrestricted free agent Michael McCarron. The contract is a one-year, two-way deal worth $700,000 in the NHL. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound forward has yet to live up to expectations since being drafted 25th overall by the Canadiens in 2013. He is one of a handful of Canadiens first-round draft picks who have not been able to become impactful NHL players. McCarron, along with Nikita Scherbak, Jarred Tinordi, and Louis Leblanc are all former Canadiens first-rounds picks drafted between 2009 and 2014 and are not currently playing in the NHL.
When the Canadiens selected McCarron late in the first round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, he was considered a project. At the time, McCarron’s size along with his position (center) was something the Canadiens were desperately lacking. The league still favored big, physical players and McCarron was exactly that.
He put up decent numbers for his size and skillset in the seasons leading up to the draft. After he was selected, he decided the best path for his development was to play in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) rather than go the U.S. college route. Despite the feeling that McCarron’s style was better suited for the CHL (physicality and being able to fight), many believe he would have been better off developing in the college system, where he would have played fewer games and focused more on practicing and off-ice training.
McCarron was successful in the CHL, playing 122 regular season games and notching 102 points, while picking up 248 minutes in penalties. In his second and final season in the CHL, he was traded from the London Knights to the Oshawa Generals, where he won a Memorial Cup Championship picking up 18 points in 21 games.
The following season (2015-16), McCarron graduated from the CHL, turned pro and played most of the season for the Canadiens’ farm team. In the AHL, he put up respectable numbers notching 38 points in 58 games with the St. John’s Icecaps (now the Laval Rocket). He also dressed for 20 games with the Canadiens that season. Despite only picking up a couple points during his short stint in the NHL, McCarron’s play was solid for a rookie and the future seemed bright for the American forward.
McCarron’s development started to slip in the following two seasons when he failed to take the next step. He struggled offensively in the AHL and when he was called up to the Canadiens, he didn’t receive much playing time and was only effective when he fought.
The 2018-19 Season
Fast forward to last season when McCarron faced his first season of being waiver eligible (if he didn’t make the Canadiens, 30 other NHL teams could acquire him). His preseason performance was underwhelming and he was placed on waivers, though no team claimed him. He found himself playing for the Rocket at the start of the 2018-19 season.
In McCarron’s first season of now being sent to the minors as a waiver-eligible player, he found success playing for the Rocket’s new head coach Joël Bouchard. McCarron was the Rocket’s top center and had 21 points in 32 games before suffering a shoulder injury that kept him out for the remainder of the season.
Can McCarron Make the Canadiens?
McCarron’s injury could have been the final nail in the coffin of his NHL career. He didn’t make the Canadiens, no team other NHL team claimed him off waivers, and he had suffered a season-ending injury. The Canadiens could have let him walk, yet here we are, less than a week removed from the organization re-signing the once promising center.
McCarron is getting one last shot to prove he can play in the NHL, although most expect him to start the season in the AHL. Now, I wouldn’t bet on it, and it may be an unpopular opinion, but I think his NHL career might not be over.
He was arguably playing the best hockey of his pro career before his injury. If he can pick up where he left off, he might turn some heads at camp this season. The Canadiens are also lacking physicality, especially after trading away forwards Andrew Shaw and Nicolas Deslauriers this off-season.
Neither player has been replaced and, even before these moves, the Canadiens lacked size. After watching the St. Louis Blues (one of the biggest teams in the league) bulldoze their way to becoming Stanley Cup champions, the Habs might want to consider adding a player like McCarron to their lineup.
He was never meant to be a top-six forward. Since he was drafted, his projected ceiling was always a third-line center. At this point, even cracking an NHL team will not be easy for him. He will need to train hard in the summer, work on on-ice skills, and show up to camp ready to play.
That might sound generic, but with McCarron it’s that simple. His frame gives him an advantage over other players. My issue has always been the lack of physicality he played with when called up. Fighting was never an issue, but I always found there was a lack of “nastiness” to his game. I remember during McCarron’s first training camp, he drove the net against the Boston Bruins, destroying a defender on his way. I wanted to see more of that style of play.
In an interview on TSN 690 radio, TSN’s Gord Miller said this about McCarron: “To be in the NHL, you got to do something really, really well. You got to do at least one thing at the elite level.” McCarron will never be an elite goal scorer or play-maker and he will never be an elite defensive forward. What he can do is become an elite checking forward. New York Islander forward Matt Martin has found success in the NHL not from producing offense, but from being a consistent physical presence that isn’t scared to step up for his teammates.
If McCarron can focus on the things he can control, which is playing simple but also mean, aggressive hockey, I think he has a legitimate shot at cracking a Canadiens lineup that is missing size and nastiness.