MONTREAL - Michael McCarron may not have achieved his goal of being a Canadiens regular in 2016-17, but he at least got to spend the majority of the season in Montreal.
After getting his first taste of life in the NHL during a 20-game stint with the Canadiens in 2015-16, McCarron was pumped for what was to come next in his career.
Translating that end-of-season momentum into a strong showing in training camp, the Habs' first-round pick from 2013 believed he'd be starting the season in Montreal. Unfortunately for McCarron, despite having impressed the Habs' brass, he was cut at the beginning of October.
While disappointed, the hulking forward knew that he could make it back to the big leagues if he made his mark with the IceCaps. That's exactly what he did, overcoming a bit of a slow start to the AHL season to score seven goals and 19 points in 32 games.
"I came in and had a good camp, but I got sent down. That's the way hockey works. I had to go down [to St. John's] and make the most of it and get better. There's a reason why I went down, and it was to get better to be here. I had a good first year - maybe I thought it would be easier than it really is. If you drop your level just a little bit, you get a lot worse," McCarron explained earlier this season.
Video: MTL@TOR: McCarron scores from below goal line
McCarron was called up twice this season - first for a month in mid-December and then again in mid-February until the Habs' elimination from the playoffs - and the towering forward managed to stand out whenever he got the chance. Those chances didn't come as often as he would have liked, though, particularly as the season came to a close and during the playoffs, as McCarron was scratched for 16 of the team's final 30 games.
The 22-year-old rookie admits that it was mentally tough to be constantly shuttling between the press box and the players' bench, but his teammates did everything they could to make him feel like he was part of the action.
"I learned a lot being in Montreal, just the way the games are played. When you're not playing, you have extra time to practice. That benefited me when I wasn't in the lineup, [I could work] with a couple guys on my skills, which was good for me. I've been learning a lot, getting better at my game here and it was great to be around this atmosphere," recalled McCarron, who still ended up playing 11 more games in 2016-17 than he did the previous year, collecting five points in the process.
With such an imposing frame, McCarron is conscious that he has to make his presence felt physically every time he's on the ice. Case in point, he was among the team leaders in fights, with five (tied for first with Andrew Shaw), and dished out 75 hits, despite only appearing in 31 tilts.
McCarron knows that he has to improve other parts of his game if he wants to become a regular in Montreal. The Grosse Pointe, MI native has already identified the areas he needs to focus on in the summer in order to become a more complete player.
"I think I improved my play around the net. My shot, too. I've been working on my shot and my accuracy; I've been working a lot on that. My leg power will always have to be something that I would need to improve and get better at over the course of every year until I retire. I'm a big guy; it will be a key point," recognized McCarron.
Although he didn't suit up for a Stanley Cup Playoff game before re-joining the IceCaps for the last two games of their first-round Calder Cup playoff series, McCarron is very much aware of the opportunities that could come his way next season.
What little time he did get to spend in the big leagues helped him understand what he needs to do to earn a regular spot on the roster. And with the status of several veterans up in the air as the offseason gets underway, McCarron knows it's up to him to seize the opportunity.
"In practice, I'm not trying to think of it as an eye-opener anymore when I'm skating with guys like [Max] Pacioretty or shooting on [Carey] Price. I'm just trying to act like it's my job and be focused on everything I needed to be focused on. I'm a young guy, it's day-by-day with me. I have to prove that I belong in the lineup," McCarron concluded. "That's what I've been doing. [I've] been coming to the rink every day with that attitude. Obviously, I want to stay."