The centre position in hockey is one of the most vital. Offence is usually run through a line’s centreman, using his playmaking ability and vision to create offence for his wingers. Defensive ability is also a key trait, as this player is essentially a team’s third defenceman on the ice; one who must be persistent on the backcheck, and help limit the opposing team’s options while in the defensive zone.
The Montreal Canadiens haven’t had a true first-line centre since the likes of Kirk Muller and Vincent Damphousse in the early 90s, or Saku Koivu in recent memory who was tasked with more than his share of the burden over 13 seasons.
It seems more than ever the position is perhaps the one with the biggest magnifying glass over it. With two former third overall picks vying for the position this year, it’s been interesting to see how the Canadiens have handled the situation.
So far this season, the Canadiens have given the keys to Jonathan Drouin, the highly skilled and mobile forward who is playing his first NHL season at the position. The team also has a young player within the lineup who has excelled at the centre position in the past.
With a goal on Wednesday night against the Hurricanes, Alex Galchenyuk had recorded his ninth point in 10 games played in the month of December. He now sits tied for first in points on the team with 21.
Following his strong performance, even head coach Claude Julien noted how hard he has been working as of late, and reopened the possibility for Galchenyuk to return to his natural position.
Julien says “Galchenyuk came to play tonight” and...”we’ve got him on the wing but it doesn’t mean we’ll never see him at centre again if we have the need.”— Dan Robertson (@DRTSN690) December 28, 2017
It should come as no surprise to Habs fans that the player who was drafted third overall in 2012 would be among the top Canadiens point-scorers this season. Ever since coming to the league, Galchenyuk has enticed both fans and media with the extreme offensive upside he has.
Meanwhile, the player they acquired in the off-season to be their new top centre sits sixth on the Canadiens in terms of points, with five goals and 13 assists to his credit.
This is not meant to dispute whether or not Drouin has the talent to play centre, as the former third overall pick in 2013 could possibly end up as the best player from his draft year, which included players such as Aleksander Barkov and Nathan MacKinnon.
However, with the Canadiens nearly halfway through the 82-game schedule, this is a critical juncture for the team, especially when it comes to their often stagnant offence.
Do you put Galchenyuk at centre once again, or stay the course and continue trying to develop Drouin there, while keeping the former on the wing?
Let’s take a look at how effective each player has been at centre so far, and perhaps where they fit best.
First off, let’s compare where Galchenyuk was at the start of last season to where Drouin is now.
Last season, before his knee injury in December, Galchenyuk showed that he was able to stick with the elite in the NHL. By the end of November, he had racked up 22 points in 23 games played, and sat eighth in NHL scoring. This was ahead of players like Sydney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Joe Pavelski, and Alex Ovechkin, to name a few.
During that streak early in 2016, Galchenyuk was playing centre instead of on the wing, most frequently with Alexander Radulov and Max Pacioretty, and seemed to have settled the debate about what position he would play.
Twenty-three games is a relatively small sample size, however one can only wonder how Galchenyuk may have performed had be been able to stay healthy for the entire season.
For the rest of the year, however, Galchenyuk was missing a step following his injury, and had to win over new head coach Claude Julien, eventually resulting once again in a position on the wing, even on the fourth line at times.
This year, Galchenyuk has played the most time with Andrew Shaw and Phillip Danault, seeing roughly 80 minutes with them (or 14% of the season), and has done so while on the left wing. He has also spent time on the right wing as well, alongside Drouin and Pacioretty.
Galchenyuk’s 21 points have come with limited ice time as well, only averaging 14:54 per game, compared to Drouin’s 17:44.
On an interesting note, the Canadiens seem to be trying to generate some chemistry between Drouin and Galchenyuk, as they have been on four separate line combinations together at various points in the first 39 games.
The reasoning for keeping Galchenyuk on the wing is his lack of defensive skill in his own zone, and the belief that he would supposedly be more free on the wing to generate offence. However, that may be the exact reason why Drouin isn’t performing to expectations so far.
In comparison to Galchenyuk last year, at the 23-game mark this season, Drouin only had 16 points. Now, at 33 games, he sits at 18. These are all while playing in the middle of the ice, averaging nearly 18 minutes per game, as mentioned above.
In terms of linemates, Drouin has played significant time with Pacioretty, with Galchenyuk and Artturi Lehkonen splitting duties nearly equally on the right side.
Drouin has been known for being an elite playmaker with good hockey sense. Combined with his excellent puck-handling ability, he could become an effective centre. Growing pains are expected, especially for someone who played 133 of his first 164 NHL games at the winger position. This can be perfectly exemplified in this play from the NHL 100 Classic, where Drouin loses the puck to Bobby Ryan, who capitalizes on the opportunity.
Galchenyuk isn’t innocent of making mistakes either, but the pressure put on a natural winger such as Drouin may affect his offensive creativity, and this could be crucial in what player he develops into.
In 2016-17, Drouin amassed 53 points with the Tampa Bay Lightning, playing primarily with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan (62.3% of the time). Before December, Drouin had only seven points, but had a huge month to end the year, with 15 points. He continued to be a very productive player down the stretch, with 22 points after the New Year.
One could argue that Stamkos and Callahan are comparable to Pacioretty & Shaw, in terms of having a pure goal-scorer and a grinder-type player, but Stamkos is a natural centre, while Drouin mostly played on the left wing.
In his draft year of 2013, Drouin scored 41 goals and 64 assists for the Halifax Mooseheads, winning the CHL Player of the Year award. Obviously, junior numbers won’t always translate to the NHL, as expected. However, this just shows the offensive capability Drouin possesses, and could perhaps score 60 to 70 points in a full NHL season once he reaches his peak.
This season, we’ve seen Drouin be the best player on the ice for the Canadiens on occasion, and he possesses a game-breaking ability not found in many other players on the roster. We have also seen a player who is still trying to grow into a position where the responsibility is two-fold, instead of being counted on to only generate offence as he did in the past.
Meanwhile, we’ve already seen Galchenyuk break the 30-goal barrier, and be one of the best offensive players this team has had in recent memory. All teams live and die by their best players, and it’s been mentioned in the past that Galchenyuk may even outscore the mistakes he makes defensively. He’s built and performs like a centre, and you often see him in the middle of the ice during the play.
Claude Julien and Marc Beregvin have to understand that by accepting some mistakes from Galchenyu they may find an extremely productive player in return. They must also understand that in order to get the most offensive production out of Drouin, he must be allowed to let his creativity loose without the burden of a commitment of defensive duties, and therefore the best place for him is on the wing.
These two players are still very young. Galchenyuk is playing his sixth NHL season now, but is still just 23. Drouin will turn 23 in March. They have plenty of time to get even better than they currently are.
This debate could be seen as a blessing in disguise, as you have two young and talented stars who are still growing and maturing as hockey players, and could be cornerstones of this franchise for years to come. It’s just time to put them in the best positions to succeed.