The big man is still a considerable human – in fact, he’s brawnier than ever.
Whispers of “bust” may have started dogging Michael McCarron in some hockey circles, but the 2013 first-rounder – a strapping 6-foot-5, 240 pound forward – remains central to the Montreal Canadiens’ ongoing strategy of adding more heft.
“Patience,” Habs player-development head Martin Lapointe said when asked about McCarron’s fitful progress this week at the team’s annual prospect camp. “He’s a young kid who probably never really trained … it takes time.”
Lapointe, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, is the man tasked with fashioning raw talents – like McCarron’s – into viable NHL players.
It’s not a perfect science.
“You can tell them all the right things to do, but at the end of the day we have to meet in the middle. I’m willing to help you, but you have to make steps too,” Lapointe said.
In McCarron’s case, that has meant better conditioning and nutrition – he has shed body fat and added muscle this summer – and working ceaselessly on his skating.
“I just want to show my improvement … I think you’ll see more speed,” he said this week.
The American’s first year in the Ontario Hockey League didn’t go according to plan – he scored only 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games and was left off the U.S. World Junior team roster. It was, the 19-year-old said, “a wake-up call.”
That’s not to say his growth as a prospect has stalled; the organization expected he might take a step back in his first exposure to a pro-style schedule.
From Lapointe’s point of view, player development is about instilling confidence in a player’s singular ability.
“In any player you can find one thing he does real well, but that thing he does real well, you have to push it to the extreme and develop it at the max, and the rest, try to move it up [with time],” he said.
His message to McCarron (use your size, play fast) applies to others in his charge.
Of the 50 players invited to the Habs’ suburban practice facility this week, only 10 are under six feet (and four of those players are listed at 5 foot 11). All of the 17 defencemen in camp are six feet or taller, and only four are lighter than the NHL average weight of 203.1 pounds.
These days it seems all NHL teams are chasing the same mythical creature – the tough, fast behemoth with skill – and the dominant Western conference teams such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Anaheim are stacked with reasonable facsimiles.
It’s an arms race, and everyone is taking part.
Since Marc Bergevin took over as Habs general manager in 2012, five of the 21 players he has drafted have been shorter than six feet; just one of the 2014 crop, shifty scorer Daniel Audette, falls short of the standard.
As it stands, Montreal has a top-nine forward slot to fill and the candidates mooted for the job tend to be largish. Swedish prospect Jacob de la Rose, 19, is 6 foot 3 and 203 pounds; 22-year-old Czech free agent Jiri Sekac is 6 foot 2 and just under 200 pounds; and while talented Swiss winger Sven Andrighetto, 21, is a relative midget at 5 foot 9, he doesn’t mind mucking it up along the boards.
De la Rose and Sekac have both committed to playing in North America this year, and the Habs will also have a number of other prospects, including former junior Team Canada winger Charles Hudon, taking their first steps in pro hockey on this continent.
Each can expect to see a lot of Lapointe. This is the third summer on the job for the former Detroit Red Wing, who also worked in the Chicago Blackhawks’ front office. Both organizations are renowned for nurturing talent, and one of the things Bergevin was intent on doing when he picked up the reins was to bolster that area.
Enter Lapointe and former Habs defenceman Patrice Brisebois. Their jobs involve teaching, cajoling and maybe the odd threat; Lapointe is a stickler for goal-setting, and works on both the micro and macro levels.
“I go straight to the point and say ‘This is how you become a pro, this is how you have to do it, there’s not 15,000 ways to train, eat,’” said the 40-year-old, who is still based in Chicago.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t racking up the airline and hotel loyalty points.
Lapointe estimates he spends eight days a month in Hamilton, working with the AHL’s Bulldogs, and that he made one or more personal visits to roughly 20 junior and college prospects last season. He’s also in constant touch via e-mail and text message– “I would probably get one every couple of days, if not every day,” said the 20-year-old Hudon.
All junior-aged players are bombarded with advice – from coaches, parents, scouts, teammates – and drafted prospects also have to contend with agents and their NHL teams. At the same time, Hudon says the advice offered by Lapointe and Brisebois – mostly about positioning, defensive awareness, and playing efficiently – was a big help.
As the 2012 fifth-round pick said, “It’s good to feel a hand on your shoulder.”