As the pre-season wears on, the Canadiens’ veterans shake off the rust and prepare for the upcoming season. Some such as Carey Price and Shea Weber started this season hoisting the Championship trophy while others exited the World Cup of Hockey early. They are now taking time to nurse their bumps and bruises.
Having had six NHL regulars participate in a best-on-best tournament has allowed Canadiens prospects to get an extended opportunity in the main camp, perhaps playing more games than normal. This means that the Habs brass is getting the chance to assess the progression of these prospects and what aspects of their game requires improvement. More importantly, management can assess if the prospects can prove that they are ready for the NHL.
One such prospect is the mountainous Mike McCarron. The Canadiens’ 2013 first round selection has had some ups and downs as he has apprenticed in Junior and the professional ranks. But one thing is noticeable, he is an intelligent player who is easily coached. At every level McCarron has taken criticism in stride and has taken great pains to improve.
During his rookie OHL season, it appeared to me that McCarron lacked the fitness level needed to compete. The following season he dominated on his way to a Memorial Cup championship playing as his team’s top two-way center playing in all situations. His rookie professional campaign McCarron earned AHL All-Star honors and a 20-game call-up to the injury-depleted Canadiens squad. During his NHL audition it became apparent that he had the physicality and skill but lacked the foot-speed necessary to be effective.
Entering this year’s camp, knowing he needed to improve, he changed his diet, his training regimen and lost 11 pounds all with the goal of improving his first step and overall speed. So far it seems to have worked.
McCarron dominated in the Rookie tournament held in London Ontario last month. He demonstrated his ability as a power-forward by driving to the net, delivering bone-jarring hits and win most battles along the boards. McCarron opened ice for his linemates and put his underrated play-making abilities on display. Once he had the puck on his stick, McCarron generated offence with a quick and accurate passes and with his NHL-level shooting.
This preseason, McCarron has played four games in six nights averaging over 15 minutes per game in all situations and has looked effective at both ends of the ice. It is clear that his 20-game NHL apprenticeship last season allowed him to gain a better understanding of his role. His increased speed has been a tremendous help as he is now able to keep pace with opposing top-six talent he faces.
The question now is, if Mike McCarron earns a role as the team’s third line center out of camp, who is cut? The axe could fall on a Michel Therrien favorite, David Desharnais. With management’s stated goal this offseason to become a team that is hard to play against, Desharnais is a player who simply does not fit the mold. While he is capable of contributing to the offence at times, Desharnais lacks the ability to play a defensive role and despite his best efforts, loses more than his share of puck battles. It would seem that McCarron has earned the position via the eye test in camp and is even supported in my highly unscientific poll.
Will McCarron earn the role as 3rd line center over Desharnais
— Blain (@Potsy_70) October 2, 2016
Desharnais was a feel-good story about the undrafted local boy who made good. He was given the role as the Canadiens top center. That role came during the 2012 collapse that resulted in the Canadiens finishing near the bottom of the standings. Montreal used the third overall draft pick to select Alex Galchenyuk who has gone on to displace Desharnais as the team’s top center.
Thomas Plekanec is an excellent two-way center capable of defending against top opponents, a ideal role for a second line centerman. Desharnais began last season as the third line center, however, his inability to produce offensively over long stretches as well as his less than ideal defensive play has made him expendable.
The youth are knocking at the NHL door and Desharnais’ diminishing effectiveness in the NHL may be the butler that opens that door for them. Standing in the way in some respects is Michel Therrien. His safety blanket of relying on a veteran he knows very well in Desharnais over more deserving players has begun to handcuff prospect development.
It seems to be time for Marc Bergevin to stick to his word of being willing to make space for the youth when they earn a position and play the role of parent to help ween Therrien from his safety blanket.
Despite his position as a favorite of his coach, Desharnais has simply been displaced on the depth chart by younger, stronger and more talented players for a top nine role. Moving forward it has become clear that he does not fit into the present or future plans of the Canadiens who are trying to become a more physical team mixed with speed and skill.
Desharnais may still be of use to the Canadiens in a diminished role as a third line left winger and possibly as a 13th forward. But the NHL roster is very crowded and the position he fills is under siege not only by McCarron, but also Daniel Carr and Artturi Lehkonen.
It can be argued that Desharnais’ trade value is very low, and the best bet to move him is likely using waivers. With the buyout window closed, it would benefit the team if he was claimed, but that is unlikely. Once cleared, he could play out the season playing a role in St. John’s helping the team make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-2011 season. Ironically that was the last season Desharnais played in the AHL.
Waiving Desharnais would save $950,000 from the salary cap, which is more than enough to cover any of the youth moving up. But that would yield $2.5 million in ‘wasted’ cap space. That is in addition to $1.33 million this year for the P.A. Parenteau buyout.
Cap implications and benefits of a veteran in the minors can be argued, but the resulting team would be faster, more physical and simply more difficult to play against with McCarron, whose game is much better suited to playing a third line role.