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2015-16 Canadiens season review: Alex Galchenyuk became the team's number-one centre

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After joining the 30-goal club and securing his place as the team's top-line centre, Canadiens fans have lots to be excited about.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Raise your hand if you thought Alex Galchenyuk would score 30 goals this year. Like many of you, I've got a paw in the air. Now keep your hand raised if you thought he would spend close to 20% of his season as a winger, mostly on the second or third line, average less ice time than last year, and still score 30 goals. Liars, put your hands down.

He fought through poor deployment and needed an injury-decimated lineup to see some time on the top line, but Galchenyuk had a career year with the Habs in 2015-16. Some would call it his breakout year, joining an increasingly exclusive club of 30-goal scorers. Since he entered the league, the NHL has had 47 players hit 30 goals in a single season, and Max Pacioretty was the only member of the Montreal Canadiens to do so in that time.

What does a career year look like for the fourth year pro? Galchenyuk notched his best season in terms of goals (30), assists (26), power-play goals (9), shots (360; also his best shots-per-game average at 2.45), shooting percentage (14.9%), game-winning goals (4) and to cap it all off, he finished with lowest penalty-minute total of his short career, accruing a mere 20 PIMs over a full 82-game campaign.

Galchenyuk has seen his goal and points totals steadily rise, and his shooting percentage has also improved year over year. His possession stats have been up and down, but he's only had a single season with negative possession at even strength. This season was his best, finishing off with a 53.1% Corsi-for pecentage at five-on-five. It's safe to say that he has been trending his overall play in the right direction, which is what you want from a top-five draft pick.

The biggest controversy surrounding the American forward is whether to play him on the wing or at centre. While he has shown an ability to perform at both, his production is vastly superior as a centre than as a left winger, and he himself says he prefers playing down the middle.

"I love centre; it's a different game. You have the puck more. I love to be with the puck. I think that's my game to have the puck on my stick. I love it," he told Craig Custance in late March.

As of March 5, when David Desharnais was sidelined with a broken foot, Galchenyuk got his opportunity to shine, being promoted to play centre on the first line with Pacioretty. He didn't get the benefit of two legitimate first-line wingers until Brendan Gallagher returned from injury on April 2. Still, during the final 17 games of the year, he played where many fans felt he deserved to be given a shot all year.

In that season-ending stretch, he scored 11 goals and added six assists, good for a point-per-game pace and better than a goal every other game. In both points and goals per 60 minutes, this final month of the season was easily Galchenyuk's best all year, and best as an NHL player. Conversely, his point production was at its lowest when he played on the wing from late January to early March. So not only does he prefer to play as a centre, he performs better in that position.

Galchenyuk rolling 5-game CF Image credit: Corsica

As a centre on lower lines, facing less skilled competition, Galchenyuk's possession numbers were off the charts, topping 60% of shot attempts going in the Canadiens' favour while he was on the ice at even strength. That collapsed all the way to 49% after being placed on David Desharnais' line as a winger. It predictably bounced back into positive numbers once he was back at centre, even when playing top-line minutes against opponents' best defenders.

It was a small sample that Galchenyuk played with both Pacioretty and Gallagher, but in the last four games of the year, he contributed three goals and one assist. Two of those goals came in the final game of the season, finishing off with the milestone 30th goal. Whether his right flank was manned by Sven Andrighetto, Paul Byron or Gallagher, Galchenyuk's play with Pacioretty was fun to watch, passed the eye test, and is backed up by stellar scoring and possession numbers. It gave Habs fans something to cheer about when the playoffs were out of reach, and look forward to when they get a reset in October (assuming he continues to receive the opportunity to play with the team's best players).

Nearly a third of Galchenyuk's goals this season came on the man advantage, where he was often spotted on the right wing in the slot, taking advantage of a thunderous one-timer. Montreal's power play was atrocious this year, and well-served by the young sniper, particularly in the first half of the season. His power-play production slowed as the year went on, perhaps because he was being scouted better by opposing teams, or perhaps because the team's system underwent little change throughout the year and became easily defensible.

With his increased scoring in the late season, his confidence in his shot was palpable. He called for the puck more often and he had that killer instinct to finish plays. He had a remarkable eight games in which he scored two goals, with seven of those coming after the All-Star break. It was really only after he was given the reins to the top unit that we saw an Alex Galchenyuk who seemed to be able to score at will, and developed seamless chemistry with the team's captain.

Michel Therrien is often the target of many pointed fingers when it comes to the roadblock in Galchenyuk's development. Earlier in the season, he claimed that his best young player had no chemistry with Pacioretty and cancelled the experiment of playing them together after only two full games.

"If I had made him the number one centre on the team from the beginning of the season, it would have put too much pressure on him, and a player's confidence is very important. When he loses it, there's a lot of work needed to get it back," Therrien explained in an interview with La Presse's Philippe Cantin.

The mystery of Galchenyuk's supposed instantaneous development will never quite be solved, but to add credence to this theory, Pacioretty recently spoke about this with NHL.com's Dave Stubbs.

"They really had the right approach with [Galchenyuk]. They want him to be the franchise centre and it does take time. People maybe want to compare centres who do well right away on other franchises, in other markets. But you've got to understand: there's no market like Montreal. For [Galchenyuk], it was going to be a little longer of a process, whether it's on-the-ice stuff to deal with, or off the ice. Being the number-one centre of a franchise like the Montreal Canadiens, you have to make sacrifices. There's no debating that."

Galchenyuk PvP radar Image credit: Corsica (Grey line = NHL median)

Even though he had the best offensive production of his career, Galchenyuk's ice time was puzzling. He actually averaged less ice time per game than he did last year; just shy of 13 even-strength minutes, which was similar to the playing time of Sven Andrighetto and Dale Weise, and less than Desharnais and Tomas Fleischmann.

If the goal was to keep him away from the top line to ease his development, there should have been a spot for him to play more than than the third-liners and less than Pacioretty's line. The good news is that Galchenyuk was the fourth-most-used forward on the power play, where his ice time most closely resembled that of Tomas Plekanec. The end result was a touch above 16 minutes per game, but he is now ready for more ice time. When he was moved up to the first line, he saw more games above 19 minutes than he had previously, and he was producing points at a greater rate than when seeing limited action.

After the end of the season that he had, there should be no question about his starting the 2016-17 season where he finished the current one. If he's healthy and not held back by any management decisions, expect to see yet another career year from #27, and the continued development of one the Canadiens' most promising players. It's not out of the question that if they play together all year, both he and Pacioretty could score 40 goals apiece.