The new 2014-15 OHL campaign brought about a dramatic change in Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Michael McCarron’s game. The start of 2015 brought a new opportunity to play a key role in the Oshawa Generals’ Memorial Cup aspirations, and he’s hoping to lead the way by taking a year’s worth of lessons and applying them to this season’s success.
“I’ve been there and I know what it takes to win,” McCarron said, before pausing and laughing. “Well, I don’t know — we went 0 and 3 last year in the Memorial Cup.
“But I know how hard it really is to win at the Memorial Cup. Last year, we had a pretty good team with the London Knights and we didn’t even win a game. It shows how tight-knit of a group you have to have and I feel like I know what it takes and I can bring my experience here to these guys. I can tell them that it’s not as easy as you may think. It’s pretty tough hockey and you’ve got to be able to go and withstand a full playoff and the Memorial Cup.”
Last year represented a huge learning curve for the 6’6” Macomb, MI native. Drafted in the first round, 25th overall, by the Montreal Canadiens in 2013, McCarron joined the OHL’s London Knights with high expectations befitting his draft status and size. The transition was slow, however, and some Canadiens’ watchers wondered if McCarron was capable of becoming the long sought-after power forward the franchise has desired.
For McCarron, who has been a dominant force in the OHL throughout his sophomore season, it’s all about conditioning and preparation.
“It was just my conditioning. I can play a full 60 minutes now and last year I was maybe only playing 30 minutes,” he said. “I was only going every other shift hard and this year I can play a full 200-foot game and I can play 60 minutes. That experience from last year also helped me know where to be on the ice, seeing where people score from, and going into the dirty areas to score those goals.
“I think that year of experience and my off-ice conditioning has really helped me this year.”
Making the jump from the U.S. National Development Team Program to the OHL was dramatic and it took a while for McCarron to acclimatize to the new surroundings.
“Being ready to play every night — that’s really the hardest thing,” McCarron said. “You play so many games in this league and I feel like it really helps you prepare for the NHL.
“I only played, what, 40 games in the U.S. program and you come here and play 65, 66 games? It’s been a huge step up.”
Last year, McCarron scored 14 goals and added 20 assists in 66 games. He added three goals and two assists in the Knights’ shortened playoff run and reboot as Memorial Cup hosts. This year, McCarron has been dominant, scoring 22 goals and adding 19 assists in 25 games with the Knights before being traded New Year’s Day to the Generals. In 21 games with Oshawa, he’s scored six goals and added 13 assists. He’s a combined +20.
Oshawa head coach D.J. Smith said he’s been thrilled with what McCarron has brought to his team — both on the ice and off.
“He’s been great for us. He’s a big guy down the middle, finishes hits, plays hard, and wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s a guy who certainly has made us a lot bigger and a lot better,” Smith said. “I think [McCarron’s Memorial Cup experience] is big, but I think the biggest thing he brings is just the way he carries himself. You can see that he wants to play in the NHL and he wants to be the best player on the ice. That pushes other players.
“The most important thing is that he’s not going to accept being average. He wants to be the best he possibly can and that pushes our other players to compete with him.”
For his part, McCarron said he feels the role he’s playing on the Generals is well suited to his skill set.
“DJ likes a lot of hitting and playing below the goal line; the London Knights were more about playing off the rush and kind of a run-and-gun game. So I’ve been able to play with both and I’ve adjusted pretty quickly,” McCarron explained. “It’s my game anyways, playing below the goal line and I think it’s something that’s going to help me in my career.”
The Canadiens have been in regular contact with their first-rounder, but have avoided telling him how to play (“They just told me, ‘listen to your coach.’) McCarron has nothing but praise for Montreal to date, including the patience it has shown with him.
“It’s been awesome. It’s a great organization — the best in the business. They know how to treat their guys,” he said. “They’ve been there through the tough times last year and even this year, they’re still pushing me to get better and better each time I play. That’s why they’re such a good team — they strive for better and they’ve been there every step of the way with me.”
And McCarron said he is looking forward to joining the Habs in the not-too-distant future.
“I don’t know if I look ahead and see where I’m going to fit in the lineup, but I look ahead to playing in the NHL and being a physical force for the Montreal Canadiens one day,” McCarron said. “Hopefully sooner than later, and hopefully I’m ready sooner than later, as well. I do see myself playing there one day in the short term.”
Smith said he thinks his center is an NHL-quality player today, but has what it takes to be a regular presence — and more.
“He could probably play in the NHL right now, to be honest, but for him to be there full-time he needs to work on his conditioning,” he said. “He’s in really good shape for what I call a junior, but he realizes how fast and how strong the pros are and [what it takes] to keep an 82-game schedule.
“I have no doubt — he’s about as close to a can’t-miss NHL player that I’ve seen when it comes to size, strength, and ability. I just think he has to get quicker, bigger, and stronger to be a regular up there.”
McCarron shares that assessment of his needs and is planning to address them — after he takes care of some pressing OHL business.
“Just my off-ice conditioning still — it’s got to get better. And my foot speed as well — I need to be a little bit quicker,” he said. “And, again, my conditioning if I want to get to the next level. I mean, I’m good for here, but the next level it’s another jump up. This summer I’m going to have to work even harder.
“Honestly right now I’m just worried about winning the OHL championship and doing it with these guys right here.”
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