Those objectives appear well within reach for the 19-year-old forward, who is currently plying his trade for the top-ranked Oshawa Generals, a club that boasts 43 wins in 54 games. Since being dealt to the 12-time OHL champs on New Year’s Day from the perennial powerhouse London Knights, the Grosse Pointe, MI native hasn’t missed a beat, picking up right where he left off in Southwestern Ontario and quickly making believers out of his new mates.
“The big thing is Michael’s strong down the middle. He controls the middle of the ice and plays great off the cycle. He’s getting better and better defensively. He’s winning draws, making plays, picking up passes in traffic. He’s playing tough, too. He just gives us a presence every time he’s out there,” praised Generals head coach, DJ Smith, who insists acquiring McCarron’s services well ahead of the league’s January 9 trade deadline was a significant move for his hockey club in their quest for OHL and Memorial Cup supremacy. “He plays with a nasty edge and finishes all of his hits. If you try to push on him, he’ll push you right back. Consistently, his effort is there every night. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him since joining us, and when the game’s on the line, he’s been one of our best players.”
That’s exactly the type of impact McCarron was hoping to have during his second season in the Junior ranks. After putting up just 14 goals and 34 points in 66 regular season games with London in 2013-14, the 6’6, 225-pound forward knew something had to change. When the Knights bowed out of the OHL playoffs in Round 2, McCarron went right to work, committing to a strength and conditioning program that enabled him to storm out of the gate in his sophomore year and never look back.
“I put in a good offseason last summer. It’s good to finally see that my work has paid off, like they say that it does. Sometimes, you don’t see it, but it’s been happening. I’m excited about that. I just feel like I can finally play a full 60 minutes. I’m not going hard on one shift and then taking the next shift off. I’m playing a more consistent and a more sustained game. That’s helped my progress,” confirmed McCarron, who boasts 28 goals, 58 points, a plus-17 differential and 108 penalty minutes in 44 games between London and Oshawa in 2014-15. “I’m also playing a full 200-foot game now. I can get up and down the ice all game long. It’s just kind of gotten easier for me, knowing where I have to be on the ice. That one year of experience as a rookie was huge. You get used to the speed of the game.”
That has enabled the Canadiens’ first-rounder, who was selected 25th overall in 2013, to become a key cog on the Generals’ top line, centering talented youngsters Michael Dal Colle and Tobias Lindberg. Traditionally a right-winger, time spent playing the pivot position in London and Oshawa is something Habs director of player development, Martin Lapointe, insists will prove beneficial for the former U.S. National Development Team member in the long run.
“Playing as a centerman helped Michael in a way with his defensive game. When you’re playing center, a lot of the time you’re the first guy back and you’re playing down low with your defensemen. It’s really helped him become more responsible. He’s good at it, too, because of his reach. He can separate the puck from the opponent really easily, especially with his range. It’s made him a better player defending in his own zone,” offered Lapointe, who is pleased to see McCarron embracing his new role in Oshawa and welcoming the challenge that comes with it. “When guys are playing on the wing, they might not be as involved defensively. You don’t see them as much. When you put them at center, though, now they realize that they have to work harder to be able to defend. That’s been an important first step, that he’s gotten more responsibility that way. That’s helped him learn the importance of playing the full length of the ice. It’s just a nice way for him to be able to adjust now, at the Junior level, so it won’t be much of a surprise when he plays professionally.”
Based on everything Lapointe has seen from McCarron this season, it doesn’t appear that his making the jump to the pro ranks is too far off. The two-time Stanley Cup champion has seen McCarron’s style of play evolve to the point where he’s not simply outplaying opponents, but completely dominating them on any given night as well.
“In Oshawa, he’s playing more of a power forward role than he did in London, which is exactly what I think he’s going to be in the NHL. I’ve been hoping to see him play the way he’s playing now. It’s a pro style of game, up and down, not necessarily trying to dangle guys one on one. The first year, that’s what he was trying to do, trying to use his puck skills. That’s not his type of game,” stressed Lapointe. “Now, you can see Michael is using his size. He knows he has to chip pucks behind defensemen and grind it out in the corners. If he’s dishing the puck to the wing, he’s driving the net and getting to the front of the net. In the past, he might’ve gone behind the guy to get a trailer pass. If he’s going to be successful at the next level, he shouldn’t be pulling up. Using his size and driving the net is the way I see him playing the game down the road. He’s got all of the characteristics that a pro hockey player has. It’s all up to him in terms of how much time he puts in, and how badly he wants it.”
McCarron’s bench boss in Oshawa will be the first one to tell you that the Generals’ No. 55 is as committed as anyone to consistently raising the bar for himself in order to make his pro aspirations a reality sooner rather than later.
“The way Michael practices and the way he conducts himself, you can tell he wants to be a pro. I have no doubt that he’ll be one. He’s jumped leaps and bounds since last season. He’s an elite player in our league. His development has gone that way. If he continues to take strides like this, he’ll be a force in the NHL,” offered Smith, who garnered OHL Coach of the Year honours last season. “He’s got a big personality. He’s a good teammate. The guys like him. He wants to stick up for his buddies. He’ll have no issues in an NHL locker room.”
While donning a Canadiens jersey is undoubtedly in McCarron’s future, there’s nothing the blue-chip prospect would like more than to some additional hardware to a mantle that already includes a silver medal from the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championships in Sochi.
“I don’t think I could have found myself in a better situation right now. I’ve been lucky enough to play on two really good teams my two years in the OHL. I’m excited to make a playoff push for an OHL title. I was playing with a bunch of guys in London who’ve won a few and they’ve said it’s the best feeling in the world,” concluded McCarron, who will celebrate his 20th birthday on March 7. “I want to win. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many points you put up. You just want to win. That’s my goal right now. I want to win a league title, and then I want to win the Memorial Cup. That’s my focus.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.