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Canadiens 2016 Top 25 Under 25: #1 Alex Galchenyuk

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Galchenyuk retains the belt as the top player under the age of 25 in the Canadiens organization.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

When Alex Galchenyuk was taken third overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Montreal Canadiens fans felt that their team had finally added the first-line centre the club had been lacking.

He made his NHL debut in the season immediately following his selection, playing all 48 games of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. He scored nine goals playing the role of a winger, with a total of 27 points, and finished ninth in Calder Trophy voting.

It seemed that his time on the wing was a temporary solution to get him accustomed to the NHL, but as the seasons wore on, he got no more than a few brief stints at his natural centre position.

He got another chance at the start of last season, in a game-to-game situation while alternating with Lars Eller. The chemistry between those two was slow to materialize, with Eller buying into the dump-and-chase style, and Galchenyuk rebelling against the coach’s instructions, attempting to maintain possession on his zone entries. As a result, most shifts saw Galchenyuk trying to deke his way around the entire defensive unit in an attempt to get to the slot, and he was thwarted on nearly every occasion.

With the conclusion of a game versus the New York Islanders on November 20, he had just two goals through the first 21 games of the season, and had some wondering if their initial excitement about his place in the organization had been premature.

He busted a 10-game goal-scoring slump in a rematch two nights later by firing a one-timer from the right circle on the power-play. It was the start of a four-game scoring streak that played a major part in moving the Habs into first place in the NHL at the beginning of December.

Galchenyuk 2016 t25u25 header

His scoring touch was not spared in the freefall that immediately followed, when no one on the team could score and Mike Condon had a a difficult time replacing the again-injured Carey Price. Another lengthy goal drought followed that promising four-game stretch, and he struggled to regain any sort of offensive consistency. In an effort to staunch the bleeding on defence, Galchenyuk was shifted to the wing in favour of Eller, and his offensive style was neutralized as a result.

After the NHL All-Star Weekend, with the Canadiens’ season lost, Galchenyuk was let loose to play centre, and began scoring once again. Over the final 31 games, he scored 19 goals, with seven two-goal games in that span, including one on the final day of the regular season to reach the 30-goal mark for the first time in his NHL career.

Votes

Galchenyuk 2016 t25u25 votes

All but three voters had Galchenyuk in the number-one spot, including the averaged result of the community vote. After a unanimous first-place position in 2014 and a single dissenter in 2015, there was a (small) debate about which of Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher is the top young player in the organization.

Top 25 Under 25 History

2012: #3 2013: #2 2014: #1 2015: #1

A steal even at the third-overall selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Galchenyuk debuted at number three in our list later that summer, and has only moved up since. He claims the title of best player in the Canadiens organization under the age of 25 for the third consecutive time, and still has another two years of eligibility to extend that streak.

Strengths

He is at his best when carrying the puck with speed through the neutral zone, but only if he has the support of forwards who have the offensive awareness to get into the spaces he opens up. He drew a lot of attention from the opposition last year, and the time and space he is allotted will only decrease now that he is a 30-goal scorer.

That means he is going to face the best players the other team has to counter the abilities of he and his linemates, and that will keep some of the best two-way players in the league focusing on defence rather than creating chances in the offensive zone. While opposing coaches are looking to contain Galchenyuk’s unit, that will result in better opportunities for the Habs’ lower lines. For the first time in a few years, with the addition of Alexander Radulov and the likely debut of Artturi Lehkonen, the team will have enough offensive skill lower in the lineup to capitalize.

Galchenyuk has the ability to make plays in the tighter space he will be granted, and can turn a stifling defensive press into a sudden offensive break with a deft pass. With that play as an option, he can start to incorporate the odd stickhandling move to get around an opposing player, and that will make him an unpredictable player to try to defend.

What they will be trying to prevent is his top-end wrist shot, which was finally able to come the fore when he was part of a creative trio last season. He doesn’t need much room to launch it on goal, and screens created from tighter defensive pressure should only help him increase his chances of scoring from range.

He won’t always have a defenceman directly in his path, especially on the power play. In man-advantage situations at the end of last year, we saw him post up at the right faceoff dot and rip his accurate one-timer on goal. With the stagnancy of the power play last year, that play became just as predictable as his dekes at the beginning of the season, though the quickness still made it difficult to stop. This year, with Kirk Muller bringing his special-teams knowledge to the fold, and the addition of an even more powerful shooter who can operate on the left side, defenders can’t just key on Galchenyuk, and his offence at five-on-four will skyrocket.

His offensive skill set is best suited to playing in the middle of the ice at even strength, and his performance at the end of last season should grant him that opportunity from the first game in October. There he has options to every direction, rather than the limited possibilities from the left-side boards.

Weaknesses

While Galchenyuk is better offensively in a centre role, his defensive deficiencies are magnified. His positioning is not particularly good in his own zone, and that is the one area of his game that will need to take a big step forward if he wants to become one of the top forwards in the league. To carry the puck through the neutral zone and use his offensive skills, he first needs to help gain possession.

In the short time last year that he played with two other forwards who struggled in the defensive aspects — David Desharnais and Dale Weise — many shifts found him chasing the puck in his own end, with no one able to stop the pressure from opposition forwards. He’ll need to work on his discipline in his defensive positioning, and learning when to attack the puck carrier.

The good news is that the top options to be his linemates are solid defensive players. Whether he returns to playing with Max Pacioretty and Gallagher, or has Tomas Plekanec on his wing to help with defensive duties, he shouldn’t be as exposed as during his time with that backfiring attempt at an exploitation line.

Faceoffs are a situation where Galchenyuk has never excelled, having his best season to date at just 47.9% last year. For that reason, there may be a desire to have a player like Plekanec on his wing to help get the shifts started on the right foot.

Projection

We’ve been projecting Galchenyuk as the team’s number-one centre since he was drafted back in 2012, and it appears he’s finally earned that role. Now, it’s a question of how good of a top-line centre he can become.

His goal totals have steadily increased in his time in the NHL, and that should be expected to continue for 2016-17. While 30 goals is an impressive milestone in the current NHL (only 28 players achieved that level last year), given the facts that he only scored twice through the first quarter of the last season, and that the power play could be much improved under Muller, it’s not a reach to believe he could become the first 40-goal scorer the Canadiens have seen since Vincent Damphousse in 1993-94.

With the way last season finished, it was a bit surprising that Galchenyuk wasn’t chosen as a member of Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, but that may just serve as added motivation once training camp starts. He will probably get more consideration for the U.S. National Team in future tournaments, though hopefully he will be otherwise occupied when the annual World Championship rolls around.

He was given a bridge deal a year ago, with a two-year period to prove his worth to the organization. He established himself as an important piece of the Canadiens’ future with his performance in the latter half of the season, and will only improve in the final year of his contract.