By now, everyone knows that Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher are really good players. Pacioretty has scored 86 goals in the last two years, while Gallagher has impressed with both his offensive ability, and the way he plays the game, outworking anyone and everyone while taking punishment to make a difference for his team.
However it's in the nature of Montreal Canadiens fans to doubt what they have, and you often hear people say things like "Gallagher isn't a first liner", and I don't believe the general fan realizes how wrong this is, and how special these players are. Let's look at each individually.
While Pacioretty's goalscoring has been highly publicized in Montreal over the last two seasons, not to mention his improvements defensively, Habs fans don't yet realize how impressive his play has been.
Over the last four seasons, only two players in the NHL have scored more often than Pacioretty's 1.47 goals per 60 minutes of ice time in all situations; Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, both tied at 1.81 goals per 60 minutes played. Keep in mind that over that time, Pacioretty has played 209 minutes while shorthanded, Stamkos has played 111, and Ovechkin has played... 6.
That doesn't diminish either player, but shows that Pacioretty plays more minutes where it's more difficult to score, suggesting he's even closer to those two than you might think. If you trim it down to only even strength minutes, Pacioretty remains third in the NHL with 1.26 goals per 60 minutes played, behind only Rick Nash at 1.34, and Stamkos again at 1.46.
Pacioretty's goalscoring dominance is something the Canadiens haven't seen since the days of Guy Lafleur, as even at Stephane Richer's two lofty 50 goal seasons, he finished seventh in the NHL in goals both years, it was a much different league.
At 2.31 points per 60 minutes played at even strength, Pacioretty is again among the elites, placing him ninth in the entire NHL over the last four years, ahead of players like Patrick Kane, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, John Tavares, and Ovechkin.
When it comes to offense, you could argue that Pacioretty is a top five winger in the entire NHL at even strength, just look at the stats.
That Pacioretty has done this in a system that inhibits both shot generation and offense in general is an even bigger testament to the elite level at which he plays, and we haven't even mentioned his possession numbers, which are just as good, if not better.
Even more so than Pacioretty, Gallagher is underrated by his own fans. It's not uncommon at all to hear people say the Habs need a "true" first line right winger. I've even heard some, normally credible, people say that Gallagher is a third liner on a good team. Well, that's so wrong it borders on lunacy.
A fun game I like to play with people who think Gallagher isn't a first liner, is to ask them where they think he ranked in even strength goals among right wingers in the 2014-15 season. Remember before you guess, that Gallagher scored on only 9.4% of his shots on goal, below average for a top line player. Got a guess? Well the answer is fourth. Fourth in the entire league. Only super-elite scorers like Corey Perry and Vladimir Tarasenko, alongside the emerging Nikita Kucherov were ahead of his 21 even strength goals. Now imagine the Canadiens had a working powerplay, and you'd be very likely to have a 30 goal guy.
There were only 15 players who scored 30 goals in 2014-15, by definition there are 90 first line players.
Gallagher isn't at the same level as Pacioretty is, he doesn't have the skating speed, acceleration, or the size, and their games are very different. However Pacioretty is more than a first liner, he's essentially a franchise building piece on the wing, super-elite. Using the same metrics we looked at with Pacioretty, it's easy to see that Gallagher is not only a first line player, but a damn good one.
In all situations, Gallagher is tied for 45th in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes played over the last four years with 1.07, tied with players like Evander Kane and James van Riemsdyk, and ahead of players like Pavel Datsyuk, Bobby Ryan, and Patrick Marleau.
When you shift focus to even strength, Gallagher emerges as an even more potent weapon.
Gallagher's defense has a long way to go to get to anywhere close to his offensive contributions, but he's still above average in that area anyway. Through his first three seasons in the NHL, he's actually been scoring on a lower than expected number of his shots, especially when you consider where he's shooting from. He isn't going to blow anyone's mind with his playmaking either, but Gallagher's forechecking ability does lead to a lot of chances for his linemates, as does his ability to create chaos near the net.
The Canadiens own two of the top seven best shot attempt producing players in the NHL, and they play a system that produces fewer attempts overall than half of the NHL. These guys are studs, and they're signed for the next four years for a combined cap hit of $8.25M, with Gallagher signed an extra two years at $3.75M. Not coincidentally, that next four years is the best chance the Canadiens will have to win a Stanley cup for likely the next two decades.