During the 2015-2016 season, Brendan Gallagher was on his way to his fourth straight injury-free season.
Then, on November 22, against the New York Islanders, Gallagher went towards the point like he has done countless times before and countless times since. Johnny Boychuk’s harmless-looking shot hit Gallagher on the hand.
He was immediately in pain, and when the whistle went, Gallagher went straight to the dressing room.
At the time of the injury, Gallagher had nine goals and 10 assists in 22 games (.864 points per game). When he returned on January 1, he scored a goal and an assist in the Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins in his first game back. He continued to get 10 goals and 11 assists in 31 games (.677 points per game) after the injury.
The next season, he got off to a slow start with six goals and 12 assists in 39 games (.462 points per game) and then, in a game against the Dallas Stars, Gallagher was hit by a Shea Weber slap shot.
Gallagher himself says he was lucky the shot was only going 98 miles per hour.
And when he came back, he struggled. He had 11 points in 25 games (.440 points per game) but even that is misleading. He had one game in those 25 where he had a goal and three assists. If you remove that game, his seven points in 24 games was a paltry .292 points per game.
There were real questions about what kind of player Gallagher was. Could he ever become a legitimate top-six player again? Could he recover from the injuries and get that scoring touch back? Well, this season answered those questions.
Let’s start with a chart.
Gallagher’s season had a nice milestone with 31 goals and 23 assists while playing in all 82 games. And as you can tell by the above chart, he wasn’t simply putting up scoring numbers, he was truly an elite top-line player last season.
The chart looks at the percentile the player was in. So his 94 in Game Score means that he was ahead of 94 percent of NHL forwards. His 99 in Individual shots means he was ahead of 99 percent.
He has a reputation as an agitator. As someone who gets under opponents’ skin while being a capable scorer. But this year, in addition to being annoying, he was also a creator. He was eighth in the league in individual scoring chances at 5 on 5. He was fifth in the league in individual high danger scoring chances.
And this with Tomas Plekanec as his most likely centre. When Plekanec was traded, Gallagher played with Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron and put up even better numbers in terms of controlling play.
Quite simply, Gallagher was among the top players in the entire NHL last season and did it while playing less time and with worse teammates.
Gallagher literally made every Canadiens player on the ice better.
I don’t even have to describe the above charts. Every player gets better when paired with Gallagher. He’s not the one riding coattails.
Questions around whether he would ever find his game after the injuries should be put to rest. The only question now, is whether he can maintain the level he performed at last year.
He is undoubtedly now a very good top six player. But with another season like the one he just had, he will become a true top line talent, on top of everything else he brings to the table.
And unlike other pests around the league, he draws more penalties than he takes by a large margin (in the 93rd percentile, which means better than 93 per cent of NHL forwards).
During the years most NHL talent takes the next step in their careers, Gallagher suffered through two truly debilitating hand injuries and the numbers back that up. In his first healthy season after the injuries, he established himself and had an elite season.
If he can do it again, then Gallagher will likely forge a new reputation. With another season like the one he had, he will no longer be ‘Brendan Gallagher, pesky pest who scores’, he will simply be known as one of the best players in the NHL.