Michael McCarron (Photo by Stephane Dube | © Rocket Sports Media) Mandatory Credit Required

by Blain Potvin, Staff Writer, and Rick Stephens, Editor-in-Chief, All Habs Hockey Magazine

This summer, the Montreal Canadiens tendered a qualifying offer to Michael McCarron. Given his lack of arbitration rights he has only two choices, sign the contract, or hold out in the hope of negotiating a new deal. To date, he remains unsigned with training camp just a few weeks away.

It has been just over five years since the Canadiens stepped to the podium and called Michael McCarron’s name with their first pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Marc Bergevin had been on the job as the Habs general manager for just over a year. 

Bergevin arrived in Montreal with his own draft list. He also was cognizant of the constant refrain from the Quebec media. After successive Stanley Cup champions named the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, the pundits wanted size and weren’t shy about saying so. And a home-grown goaltender would add the icing on the cake.

Melding his ideas with Trevor Timmins’ draft list, Bergevin delivered both to the team’s critics — McCarron was selected with the 25th pick and Zach Fucale at 36th overall. And in doing so, the new general manager was an instant hit.

“This is a very physical player and he has character.”

McCarron was the prize pick that Bergevin liked to crow about. “This is a very physical player and he has character,” said Bergevin. “He’s still very young, and he will put on weight and get stronger. He has really good potential.”

McCarron projected that he could play up and down a future Canadiens lineup, “mixing things up on the fourth line and creating plays on a first.”

Five years later, it really hasn’t worked out that way.

It’s fair to say that while Bergevin met the perception of adding size, management had a pretty good idea that McCarron was going to be a project. Leading up to the draft, scouts were split on his comparables and whether he should be considered as first round talent. Some saw him as a top-six John Leclair and others predicted that he would be no more than serviceable NHL’er like Mike Rupp.

At six-foot-six-inches, 230 pounds, it’s easy to see why Bergevin was a fan. McCarron played a punishing physical style, won battles on the boards and was hard to knock off the puck. What may surprise Habs fans is that skating was considered to be a strength of the behemoth with good up and down speed, albeit with a slow first step.

McCarron played a good defensive game and was effective on the penalty-kill. He had very good puck skills for a big man with a decent shot.

His release was a whole other issue taking too long to load his shot. Stamina was a major issue which led to inconsistent effort. His vision and ability to read plays was weak. And his hockey IQ was well below normal.

“This guy should be able to do a little more.”

In their 2013 draft preview, one scout told The Hockey News, “[McCarron] is a guy who leaves you wanting more sometimes. You look at his size and his reach and his skating and you say, ‘This guy should be able to do a little more.'”

As we passed the fifth anniversary of McCarron’s draft, should Habs fans be concerned that  the 23-year-old centre has failed to carve out a specific role in the Canadiens lineup particularly with an organizational weakness down the middle? 

McCarron made his pro debut for the St. John’s IceCaps during the 2015-16 season. He  brought with him a first-round pedigree with good success in the CHL playing with iconic programs in London and Oshawa. McCarron played a key role for the Generals enroute to a Memorial Cup championship.

For two seasons in the AHL, McCarron primarily centred the top line for the IceCaps playing with offensively-skilled players. He was asked to use his size to generate a cycle game and create traffic in front of opposition net. Even with a healthy dose of power-play time, his offensive numbers were underwhelming. In 90 games, McCarron recorded 24 goals, 33 assists for 57 points.

For his third pro season, Canadiens management defined a much different role for McCarron. He was tasked with centering a middle-six checking line playing a responsible game with defensively-minded players. In 54 games with the Laval Rocket, McCarron scored just seven goals, adding 17 assists for 24 points.

Maintaining discipline has been a major issue for McCarron. He racked up 121 penalty minutes in 54 games for the Rocket last season. And he had a knack for taking bad penalties.

After three seasons in the AHL, McCarron should be dominant. He isn’t.

As a veteran of the the IceCaps/Rocket, he should be a leader. He isn’t.

While an off-season training program with Torrey Mitchell in 2017 helped stamina issues, inconsistent play remains. Sluggish decision-making continues to be McCarron’s Achilles’ heel. Indiscipline has regularly derailed his game and has torpedoed his team.

By now, you should be starting to understand that the major stumbling blocks in his game are not necessarily physical. Perhaps McCarron has failed to live up to the promise of a 2013 first-round pick due to issues that cannot be fixed in the gym.

While Bergevin mentioned McCarron’s character after the draft, we have seen little evidence of it over the past five years. His priorities don’t seem to be in order. Using his ‘celebrity’ to feed a fragile ego occupies too much of his off-ice focus.

This brings us to his NHL record. To put it politely, McCarron has been a non-factor with the Canadiens. He has two goals and six assists for eight points in 69 games for Montreal. His discipline has been an issue at this level as well, with 110 minutes in penalties.

While his first few strides are an issue, more importantly, it is his inability to efficiently process the game (especially at the NHL level) that hampers his first step. Making smart, quick decisions triggers acceleration and helps to establish separation.

To add to his development woes, the Habs now have an influx of at least seven centers who could possibly compete directly with McCarron for a bottom six position down the middle. They include Tomas Plekanec, Jacob de la Rose, Byron Froese, Matthew Peca, Alexandre Alain, and Michael Chaput.

This makes this coming camp a pivotal one for McCarron. It’s reasonable to say that this is a crucial ‘must-win’ test for his development. The organization has provided a defined role  and expectations. The rest is up to him.

McCarron remains the largest question mark this summer. As the Habs camp is set to begin in a few weeks, McCarron remains without a contract. Has he outstayed his welcome with the Canadiens? Can he find a way to become a regular bottom six NHL forward? We may be about to open a new chapter or close the book on the Canadiens first round pick of 2013.