I watched the London Knights game against the Erie Otters on Friday night, since the Canadiens-Sabres game was blacked out.
Thank you Gary Bettman.
My main point of interest was the play of 2013 first-round pick Michael McCarron, who has been playing centre on the first line with Max Domi for the Knights. This is a bit of a surprise for Habs fans, and also for the brass, since when they picked him they envisioned a big powerful winger, not a centreman. It seems to be working in our favour, aiding his development, since it forces Mike to play lots in all situations, and he's been found to be very good at taking faceoffs, which is not a skill to turn up our nose at.
The Sporstnet crew of R.J. Broadhead and Sam Cosentino were complimentary in their description of the Canadiens prospect. At one point R.J. Broadhead uttered the words "McCarron skating smoothly over the blue line...", which is a pleasant change to all the criticism of his skating from last season.
Indeed there is a skip to his stride, less chugging and more churning. He's quicker, more 'on the puck' rather than behind the play. He's able to dish out bodychecks, to use his size and strength, since he's getting there in time to hit now, he not a second late, two steps behind. He wins offensive zone draws, as well as in the defensive zone while killing a penalty, all of which is good news.
On a sequence thirteen minutes in the first period, he took a faceoff in the defensive zone and won it cleanly, outright, the puck going straight back between his legs to his defenceman. He stayed back with his defencemen, and did a nifty give-and-go using a backward pass to get out of his zone. Then on the dump-in to the offensive zone, he forechecked the defenceman who retrieved the puck in the corner. He stickchecked and then bodychecked him, preventing him from clearing the puck. A couple of seconds of battling for the puck later, he won clear possession for his team and, his job done, headed straight for the slot, ready for a one-timer.
Around two minutes to go in the first, having lost a draw in the offensive zone, he pursues the play and finishes a check on Buffalo Sabres prospect Nick Baptiste and propels him into the boards, getting the home crowd to ooh and aah, and preventing a clean zone break. Instead the Knights regain possession in the neutral zone. Having broken his stick on the play, he gets another one from the bench and streaks into the offensive zone to support a line rush by Mitch Marner and Max Domi. On the way he falls to his knees but has the ability to get back up on his feet and corral a loose puck and get a backhand on the net, which was stopped by the goalie but left a juicy rebound in the crease.
Unfortunately, instead of staying in front of the net for such an eventuality, Mike had skated through the area to paste defenceman Darren Raddysh with another big hit. The Sportsnet announcers took the time to explain that it was a good decision by the London head coach to put Mitch Marner on with Mike and Max Domi, to load up his talent on one line and get something going.
So a good first period for Michael, he's working hard and being a factor. We've read about his point production, but these are apparently not due to him cheating and waiting for passes and breakaways. He's down low in his zone, often supporting his defencemen by standing right in front of his net, or behind the goal line to provide an option for a pass.
Damian Cox was asked for his impressions of Michael during the first intermission, and he repeated pretty much what Habs fans have been discussing, that as a first-round pick, he underwhelmed in his first year in the OHL, but is a transformed player this year.
"We saw a lot of him at the Memorial Cup," he said, "and he really to me at that time didn't impress. He just looked like a tall lanky guy who really didn't bring a lot to the party both in terms of skills or in terms of physical play.
"Well tonight, on the basis of tonight, he just has a much bigger presence on the ice. He's using that body, he's crashing into people. I don't know if he'll ever be a tough guy or anything like that, and frankly I don't think the Montréal Canadiens want him to be a tough guy, they want a big body on the wing. He might take a while, (...), but I see a guy who's not just growing into his body, but a guy who's growing into the idea of being a big, physical presence out there."
"I think he'll be a good player in professional hockey," Todd Warriner essentially agreed, "like you said, I'm not sure he's going be a physical presence in the League, he's a big guy, you'd like to see him use his body more, but that's just not his style. He's good down low in the cycle game, creating space for his linemates..."
Things took an interesting turn in the second. On one sequence, Mike had a clear two-on-one break but was far off to the right and had no real angle to the net, so he tried a pass to Max Domi, but a sprawled defenceman deflected the cross-ice attempt. It would have been nice to see him try to bring the puck to the net, use his body to shield the puck, rather than try to finesse the puck to his winger.
Later, Mike charged the net looking for a rebound, and ended up jousting with Kurtis MacDermid, a 20-year-old 6'5" 225 lbs defenceman he'd tangled with all game. Both players invited each other to be the first to drop the gloves, but with a linesman between them it didn't come to anything.
This snapshot should give anyone who thinks that Mike will lay waste to humanity when he reaches the NHL pause. Building on what the Sportsnet talking heads touched on, what we know of the Canadiens organization, and what we know of Michael's game, he'll drop the gloves when necessary, but he's not a testosterone-addled raw meat eater. Bob Probert or Cam Neely wouldn't have hesitated at the first invite, they in fact might not have waited for it. Mike McCarron is a different type of player than that, maybe more Joel Otto than Joey Kocur.
Seconds later, London forward Chandler Yakimowicz took it upon himself to confront Mr. MacDermid. Being 18 years old, and giving up four inches and twenty pounds to his adversary, he got the worst of the exchange, losing on a technical KO, the linesmen jumping in to stop the beating when he could no longer defend himself, overwhelmed as he was.
It was interesting to think that this may have been a case of the coach not wanting to lose his #1 centre for five minutes or even longer if he suffered an injury. It may have been the coach not wanting him to fight, the Milan Lucic "Coach Julien doesn't want me to fight, or fight third-pairing defencemen" angle. Or it may have been a teammate sticking up for another teammate, knowing their roles on the team. It may be an eighteen-year-old trying to prove himself to earn a contract after being drafted by the Blues in the sixth round this previous June.
In any case, this sequence should be used to provide a frame of reference when we try to project Michael on the Canadiens lineup in three years time. Sure, things change, like when we read the pre-draft scouting reports on Max Pacioretty and they mention how he needs to work on his skating and his shot, but right now, we should think of Mike in terms other than being an enforcer who'll make the Bruins pay for the last two decades or so.
Mike finished the second period the same way he started the game, causing panic in front of the Otters' net, occupying defencemen, getting two clean shots at the net from in close that didn't connect. He flubbed a couple of opportunities on the powerplay, not connecting with his passes. He played on the penalty kill, at four-on-four, he backchecked hard on defence, picking up his man but not picking up a penalty in doing so.
In the third, we saw Michael's skating and energy flag, as if his batteries were drained. Notably near the end, he tried to block a shot by going down on one knee, got spun around by a fake, and then struggled to get back on his skates, compared to earlier in the game. At the very end of the game, when play went the other way from the offensive zone, he was visibly chugging back, unable to follow the play, and the Otters ended up buzzing around the Knights' net and almost scoring on a couple occasions as a result.
It's not great that his energy level waned like that. Compared to Max Domi, who was still flying and dancing around defenders, he has a ways to go to match that level of fitness and game shape. On the other hand, this is a known factor for Michael, he's had to revamp his approach and methods with regards to his off-ice training last season and this summer after a difficult transition to the OHL. His improved fitness has been remarkable, and helped him transform his game, but he still has a long way to go. This isn't a one-summer project, more of an ongoing endeavour that will again pay dividends next season, when he moves up to the AHL and takes another huge step up. So Michael has come a long way, but still has a lot of room to improve in this area.
One reason he may have been running on fumes is that the Knight's coaches had him play huge minutes, every third shift he and his linemates were on the ice trying to battle back from a 2-0 deficit. One penalty he and four other forwards played as one unit for the entire two minutes, and it was a dangerous powerplay.
The interesting part was how they mixed things up, Michael not necessarily staying in front of the net as a screen, but also moving up high in the slot, almost like a defenceman, but not staying close to the blue line. He was about two or three metres in from there, and closer to the centre as opposed to near the boards. From that position he got off a few good shots, including a sweet one-timer, but nothing that connected.
The Knights did manage to tie things up, scoring once on the powerplay and once at even strength, and the game moved to overtime. While 4-on-4 play might not seem to play to Michael's strengths, he took a regular shift here too, and again we saw him struggling near the end of shifts, barely able to backcheck in time, and not able to jump on opportunities or loose pucks that skittered nearby. We saw him wave for a change well in advance and far from his bench on one sequence. At the end of OT, we saw him sitting on the bench, trying to catch his breath, helmet off, his night done. Good work kid.
He didn't get a chance in the shootout, and Erie won it in the fourth round.
The Sportsnet guys during the game were batting around the possibility that Nikita Zadorov, who's playing with the Sabres, and Bo Horvat, with the Canucks, could be sent down to junior and reinforce an already strong Knights squad. This seems like a long shot, reports are that the Sabres are increasing the minutes for their young defenceman, and the Canucks have made a clear announcement recently that Bo Horvat is staying with them. Vancouver also doesn't have any likely candidates to draw from in Utica, and should injuries strike, they'll need the young centreman simply to fill out their roster.
So we definitely shouldn't bet on this eventuality. Not to say that Bo Horvat's return would play against Mike, to the contrary, he'd still get lots of minutes. If Bo Horvat and Nikita Zadorov were sent back, it would probably mean good things for our prospect, since they'd be loaded for bear and might go quite deep in the playoffs. This kind of high-pressure experience can't be bought.
As it is, we should be ready for Michael to play a big role and continue playing important minutes in all situations for his team, which is all we can ask.