Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Memorial Cup: Guelph Storm 7, London Knights 2

This game got out of hand early, the Guelph Storm being as predicted too much for the stalled London Knights.  The Storm won relatively easily by a 7-2 score, and my thumb got a workout on the remote control, hitting the 'Skip' button early and often.

I decided to concentrate on Canadiens prospect Michael McCarron, and noticed that he was in the roster as the right wing on the third line to start the game, as opposed to centering the fourth line as we've seen previously in this tournament.  Despite this bit of good news, things didn't start well for Mike, getting scored on twice in the first period, although one goal was on a penalty kill.

Generally, Mike has okay hands, he's not just a big strong guy with no skill like a Derek Boogard or John Scott, certainly.  He can take a pass and make one, but he's definitely not nifty, he benefits by playing it simple, shooting the puck, putting it on net, or failing that, just off the boards and deep in the zone, and then going after it.  He works hard, he definitely tries, effort is not an issue.  He finishes his checks, he gets in there, he's very willing.

His skating will definitely need to improve.  He needs a few strides to get up to speed, and then he's loath to lose the speed he generated, so he cruises around looking for a pass, a loose puck, a chance for a big hit.  He backchecks and protects his net, his positioning may need work, but that will come with experience.  He's definitely not floating, it's just that he's not a quick stop-and-start skater, and at his size that's understandable.

One player I noticed in the game is Bo Horvat, since I read a couple of articles in Vancouver papers that claim he will be in the Canucks' lineup in the fall, it's all but guaranteed.  The thinking is that the team isn't deep in forwards, they had a patchworked fourth line this year, kind of like when the Canadiens would work in a Frédéric St. Denis or a Yannick Weber, an Aaron Palushaj, a Mike Blunden on their fourth line two seasons ago.  So you may as well bring up a youngster, one who'll play a big role in the future, and let him learn the ropes on the job, to play him lots at a young age since he's not taking a better player's spot, he's not taking shifts away from players who give you a better chance to win.

Which is fine if the player you're targeting for such duty seems to have nothing left to learn in Junior, seems to be beyond that level, and appears NHL ready.  To make an easy example, Nathan McKinnon last season in the Memorial Cup seemed very ready, it didn't take a great leap to envision him in the NHL.  Meanwhile, that's not the case for Bo Horvat.  I didn't see a player who couldn't benefit from a season or two in the AHL.  Especially when applying the Marc Bergevin standard, that a young player has to make the decision for you, to force you to keep him on your big league roster, I didn't see that in this tournament.

So yeah, the Canucks don't have a Michaël Bournival or a Gabriel Dumont on their farm team, a kid who chomping at the bit for a bigger role, who are ready for a bottom 6 role immediately, but I still don't see that they should plop Bo Horvat in their lineup as a result.  They should think about getting a couple of very cheap veterans on short-term contracts in free agency this summer, and let their prospect fight his way up, earn his role.  Just because they have a hole in their roster, because they need bodies, shouldn't mean they parachute a kid in their roster, especially in light of a so-so Memorial Cup tournament.

The Sportsnet crew, while watching the debacle unfold, suggested that maybe the Knights' young pros, the guys who've been on an NHL path for a long time and were taking a third straight kick at the Memorial Cup, may have been 'over it', already looking forward to this summer's rookie camps with their respective teams, more preoccupied with the NHL rather than the CHL, and it got me thinking too.  There certainly didn't seem to be the fire, the emotion, the desperation in their performance.  Had the novelty, the meaningfulness of a Memorial Cup worn off for them?  It's certainly food for thought, although we might want to look at more proximate causes for their quick exit, like poor goaltending, for example, and the deflating effect that might have had.

One player who caught one's eye was Josh Anderson, the big winger who's a property of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  His game went a little more like what we'd have liked from Michael McCarron this season.  On one sequence, he skated into the Guelph zone with his teammates, and he carried the puck, got into position to make a good shot on net, then picked up the rebound and roofed it on a nifty backhand.  Later on, during a third period powerplay, he got off a few good shots on net, including a laser off the crossbar.  He showed great agility and fluidity on his skates, and good ability to create chances with the puck.

Of course, he has had one more development year than Michael has, it's his third season in the OHL, and he played on the World Junior team for Canada this January, so we can't make a direct comparison.  At 6'3" and 212 lbs, he's also not as gigantic, he's further removed from his growth spurt, so he's got that advantage, no wonder he's more ballerina less offensive tackle.

Mike had some up and down moments in the second.  He failed to clear his zone a couple of times on one sequence, which means he was bottled up with his teammates for a long, long shift before they could finally change.  On the very next one though, he entered the zone on a rush and he headed straight for the net, waiting for a pass or deflection, and caused a traffic jam in front of the goalie, as the Storm defencemen panicked and tried to contain him.

In the third, with Dale Hunter feeling the game and the tournament getting away, he again was juggling his lines, and Mike played at centre for a couple of shifts, but really came close to scoring when partnered with Bo Horvat.  On one shift he fought for the puck in a corner and passed to Mr. Horvat in the slot for a great chance to score.  Most shifts in the third, Mike would be around the net, sticking his nose in for a rebound, batting at them, making a couple of dekes to try to slide it by the goalie or through a scrum.  He'd get multiple scoring opportunities in one brief scramble, that he helped create by drawing the defencemen's attention.

And this is what gives me more hope, that he seems to play better when partnered with better players.  That seems like a truism, everyone plays better with better linemates obviously, but in his case, his size and strength and effort might be better used with a couple of linemates who can do the fancy work with the puck, do something with it after Mike digs it out of the corner, or cash it in when he's causing mayhem in front of the net.  There's a synergy there, a chance for complementary skills to feed off each other.

It's like the Canucks envisioned when the traded for big right winger Zach Kassian, he'd be the big winger who clicked with the Sedins, with his 'very particular set of skills'.  Not that he's necessarily a better player than Alex Burrows or Jannik Hansen, but that he might be a better fit on that line, his weaknesses would be offset by their strengths, and vice-versa.  Now, this hasn't yet come to pass in Vancouver, but that's the long-term strategy, the grand design.

And that's what we can hope for Michael.  He didn't have an easy adaptation to the OHL, he certainly didn't have an Anthony Mantha kind of season, but we can hope that in our organization, with the prospect mix we currently have, and with the troglodytic opponents we regularly face, that he'll mesh well in our organization and thrive.  We've had success using skills and abilities of players more effectively than their previous teams with guys like Mike Weaver and Dale Weise.  Conversely, we've seen players who used to be comfortable and productive in one system lose their mojo in another, with Dave Clarkson as an obvious example.

So all in all, not a great year for Michael McCarron, we could have and did hope for more, but he's a big kid who's still growing and learning, and has a long summer ahead of him to work hard and improve, and then another season in the OHL to polish up his skills, work his way up a roster and acquire more responsibility.  His calling card, the reason he was drafted by the Canadiens, his great size, that's not going away, that wasn't a mirage.  We now get to be patient and wait for him to arrive, and see how we can fit him in our lineups in the AHL and eventually the NHL, with good linemates who'll feed off him and benefit him in return.

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