McCarron has size on his side in search of job with Canadiens

Recapping the changes made by the Montreal Canadiens during the summer and what they need to improve on to get a Stanley Cup under their belt.

LONDON, Ont. — Most NHL teams spend years searching for a six-foot-six centre. The last place the Montreal Canadiens expected to find one was among their existing prospect pool.

Mike McCarron possessed strong enough assets as a winger to warrant being taken with the 25th overall pick in 2013, but when training camp opens next week he’ll be competing for a job down the middle.

It was at Budweiser Gardens, the site of this weekend’s rookie tournament, where the transition began.

McCarron’s first thought when London Knights coach Dale Hunter suggested the idea two seasons ago was: “You think I’m quick enough?”

Never before had he lined up in the middle during a game. Not while playing for the U.S. national development team or even as a minor hockey player in Michigan.

“Never,” said McCarron. “There wasn’t that much room on the right side my first year in the OHL and (Hunter) put me at centre. I think the first game I was like 10-0 on faceoffs, so he goes ‘Oh, you’re not going back to wing, Big Mac.’

“So it stuck.”

The 20-year-old made big strides at the position last season, putting a disappointing rookie year behind him with a 28-goal, 68-point campaign.

Not only did a mid-season trade from London to Oshawa allow him to win a Memorial Cup in May, it sharpened his skills as a centreman. Generals coach D.J. Smith spent hours reviewing tape with McCarron and demanded that he put even more emphasis on being responsible in his own end.

“I don’t think I really learned quite how to play below the puck until I went to Oshawa,” said McCarron. “Smith really showed me a lot of video on a lot of the good NHL guys and showed me what to do in the defensive zone.

“That was probably the toughest part (of the position change) is learning how to play defence.”

The two players he studied closest were Selke Trophy winner Jonathan Toews and Brian Boyle, the six-foot-seven Tampa Bay Lightning behemoth.

While it’s fairly self explanatory why he zeroed in on Toews — “You can’t go wrong watching that guy play hockey,” said McCarron — the main thing he tried to take from Boyle was how he uses his size to create leverage on faceoffs.

“(I watched) how he takes draws, and how he makes a couple million bucks taking draws,” said McCarron.

As it turns out, Smith has since been hired as an assistant coach by the Toronto Maple Leafs and may have unwittingly helped the organization’s biggest rival through his work with McCarron. They’ll gladly take it.

The Habs have long lacked size at centre — six-foot-two Alex Galchenyuk is being moved over from the wing this coming season — and there is growing hope in the team’s front office that McCarron will eventually play the position in the NHL as well.

However, as one of seven Montreal players graduating to the pro ranks, he’ll almost certainly find himself with the team’s new American Hockey League affiliate in St. John’s this fall.

For now, the player is content with honing his craft and believes that the ability to line up at multiple positions will benefit him down the road.

“Wherever they need me I can play,” said McCarron. “It’s my first year of pro hockey. We’ll see where it takes me.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.