When the Montreal Canadiens took Michael McCarron in the first round of the 2013 draft, the six-foot-five 230-pound winger had the size the organization was looking for.
Then in his first season with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, coach Dale Hunter tried McCarron at centre.
“There was not that much room on the right side in my first year in the OHL and he put me at centre,” McCarron recalled. “I think the first game I went 10-0 on faceoffs and he goes, ‘You’re not going back to wing, Big Mac.'”
McCarron has switched back and forth between centre and right wing since, but he has grown accustomed to the middle of the ice and the responsibilities that come with the position. During this past weekend’s rookie tournament in London, Sylvain Lefebvre couldn’t tell that McCarron had only been playing centre for a few years.
“He looks very comfortable to me,” said Lefebvre, who is expected to coach McCarron this season with the American Hockey League’s St. John’s IceCaps. “So much that I used him in different situations: key faceoffs in our zone, the penalty kill. To me, he looks like a centreman.”
The Canadiens will try Alex Galchenyuk at centre this season but in the not-too-distant future they could use another big, strong player there, especially if they let Tomas Plekanec leave in free agency next summer.
The 20-year-old insists he doesn’t want to look that far ahead, focusing on the productive summer he had and what he hopes to show in his first professional season.
“Obviously I want to play in the NHL,” McCarron said in a recent interview. “That’s my goal. I want to be ready when I get to the NHL. It’s my first year of pro hockey. We’ll see where it takes me. I’m super excited. I came into the year prepared. We’ll see where it takes me.”
McCarron hopes his versatility takes him to the NHL one day. If the Galchenyuk experiment works out and Lars Eller shows more at centre, maybe McCarron will be the bruising right-winger he was projected to be when he was the 25th pick in 2013.
“Wherever they need me, I’ll play,” McCarron said. “I like playing two positions. It gives me a better opportunity to make an opportunity for myself.”
McCarron would be far more valuable at centre, especially after honing his faceoff game with the Oshawa Generals on the way to a MasterCard Memorial Cup championship. He credits coach D.J. Smith, who’s now an assistant on Mike Babcock’s staff with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with helping him learn to play below the puck and improving on draws.
“Smith really showed me a lot of video on a lot of good NHL guys, showed me what to do in the defensive zone,” McCarron said. “That was probably the toughest part was learning how to play defence.”
McCarron was shown video of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brian Boyle. If he can turn into something between those players in the NHL, the Canadiens would be thrilled.
“Toews is one of the best defensive centres in the league. Can’t go wrong with watching that guy play hockey,” McCarron said. “(With Boyle) try to show a bit of a big guy and how he takes draws and how he makes a couple million bucks taking draws.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press