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The Alex Galchenyuk conundrum: Using advanced stats to find the source of coaches’ frustrations

Using competition statistics to try to comprehend the mistrust coaches have in Galchenyuk.

Detroit Red Wings v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

A blessing, a saviour, an enthusiastic young star in the making. These were words to describe Alex Galchenyuk in the summer of 2012 when newly appointed Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin made his first draft selection.

The 6’2” Galchenyuk was supposed to represent a new direction for the organization. He was a big centreman oozing with talent, drafted by a club that hadn’t had that type of player in over a decade.

Now entering his sixth NHL season, his descriptors have become: a defensive liability, an underachiever, untrustworthy.

A lot of fans chalked up the mistrust in Galchenyuk to former Habs coach Michel Therrien’s quick trigger finger to pull young, offensive players out of impact roles. For years the Galchenyuk would act as a yo-yo, back and forth from centre to wing, never receiving consistent minutes or linemates as every defensive lapse or turnover brought about a shake-up in the lines.

He made was what thought at the time to be a permanent move to centre after a late-season injury to David Desharnais in March of 2016. In 40 games between that promotion and a knee injury early in December of the following season, Galchenyuk contributed 35 points. The centre was scoring at 0.87 points per game and was a top-20 scorer in the league, making many in the Canadiens community believe their long-awaited hero had emerged.

Upon his return from injury, he played at a noticeably slower pace. Since fellow centre Phillip Danault was playing well with Galchenyuk’s former wingers, Max Pacioretty and Alex Radulov, it was only sensible to give the still-recovering forward time to regain his form lower in the lineup. However, he was never given the chance to produce in a top-six role again under Therrien.

On February 14, Bergevin pulled the plug and replaced Therrien with ex-Bruins head coach Claude Julien. Julien came with a reputation of being a great communicator — a perfect candidate to solve the Galchenyuk conundrum.

Julien moved Galchenyuk back to centre right away. The American was given a few games with different wingers and his form started to return. Between the coaching change and March 22, Galchenyuk played a centre role and led the new Julien era in points, with 11 in 15 games; one ahead of captain Pacioretty and six ahead of Danault.

However, Julien, like his predecessor, abruptly moved Galchenyuk down the lineup and into the left-wing position only to play in a bottom-six role for the remainder of the season.

The game is more than scoring, but is Galchenyuk so lousy at centre that it is detrimental to play him there? To try to solve this we are going to find out how he measures up with the other Canadiens centremen against different levels of competition.

Stats overview

Woodguy and Oilers Nerd Alert put together a quality of competition model that can be found on PuckIQ. The model measures players’ output versus three levels of competition: Elite, Middle, and “Gritensity.”

The team filtered those into the elite category by using the highest percentiles of points per 60 minutes, time on ice per game, Corsi-for percentage, and dangerous Fenwick-for percentage (DFF%).

Above is a small excerpt from the overview of that project, and a recommended read to further understand the team’s goal.

Their belief is that dangerous fenwick for (DFF%) is a necessary stat in competition analysis. They describe it as a weighted unblocked shot metric based on historical shooting percentages. For example, historically a slap shot from 10 feet away goes in at a higher percentage of time than a 50 foot wrist shot.

When broken down in the various levels of competition he faced, Galchenyuk had quite a perplexing season. The skilled-centreman spent 25% of his time versus elite competition, and got pretty beatup by those opponents posting just a 44.2 CF% and 46.2 DFF%. However, his goals-for percentage (GF%) of 60, (12 goals for, 8 against) was the highest against that category of anyone on the team.

The twist is that Galchenyuk seemingly breezed through the lowest level of competition (which he faced against more often than elite players) with a 55.3 CF% and 51.1 DFF%, but posted an awful 39.10 GF%.

This would drive coaches nuts. Galchenyuk isn’t consistent in his output. He scored above expectations when playing against elite players that are controlling the pace of the game, while he didn't score despite getting the better of weak players.

How does this compare to the other two Habs centreman who regularly took shifts in the top nine?

Danault is more consistent throughout. No matter his opponents he was able to control the pace, consistently getting stronger CF% and DFF% as his opponents got weaker.

However, Danault did lack in finishing ability versus elite competition seeing just 45.8% of the goals going his way. He was on the ice for just 11 five-on-five goals for in 338 minutes of play; one less than Galchenyuk saw despite 140 more minutes of ice time.

To Danault’s credit, he only allowed 13 goals against elite competition. The consistency and low-event play enabled his coaches to put their trust in him.

Plekanec, as he has most of his career, received the majority of the elite defensive minutes for the Canadiens. The Czech was mostly consistent in CF% and DFF% but was clearly best at shutting down the middle competition.

Similar to Danault, Plekanec was only on the ice for nine five-on-five goals for while giving up 10; a low output on both sides considering the minutes played.

For coaches, the perception of consistency and controlling play is a lot more comfortable to employ than a player who is hot and cold.

Looking at these tables does give some clarity to why Galchenyuk is less trusted than his teammates but it begs an important question: who was he playing with while achieving these results?

Lines are important too

The Habs’ newest young star, Jonathan Drouin, posted an amazing 57.7 GF% against elite competition in 309 minutes, but only a 39.3 GF% against middle competition in 432 minutes.

Diving little deeper shows that Tampa Bay’s star defenceman, Victor Hedman, played 337 minutes with Drouin and the two put up strong stats, all positive, while sharing the ice. Without Hedman, Drouin’s GF% dropped to 42.1%, while Hedman’s stayed positive without his former linemate.

One assumption could be that Drouin was being carried by Hedman against elite competition and he could not produce without the star blue-liner on the ice. But it is just an assumption.

Fortunately, the guys behind PuckIQ said they have plans to expand into versus-competition WOWY (With Or Without You, basically numbers when a player is with or without other players). They were kind enough to put together some charts for Galchenyuk’s numbers for this article, so we can see how he was affected by teammates, and vice versa.

Disclaimer: These are very small sample sizes and there is room for misinterpretation.

These charts show the linemates Galchenyuk played with for a minimum of 75 minutes versus different competition. He played his only significant time against elite players with Alexei Emelin, Jeff Petry, and Radulov.

Although not perfect, this helps us understand why Galchenyuk had a higher differential against elite competition than any other Hab despite play being mostly in his own end. Montreal started 9-0-0 last season with a historically high PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage), so more pucks were going in, with fewer being allowed, than you would expect based on the shot totals.

The chart shows that Galchenyuk’s Corsi For per 60 minutes goes from 40 to 65 with Emelin off the ice, meaning Galchenyuk was likely getting the brunt of his scoring chances when playing with other defencemen.

Galchenyuk’s frequent linemates versus gritensity players are a little more interesting. Petry and Radulov once again show up but this time with Lehkonen and Beaulieu. Galchenyuk also reached the qualified minutes with Petry, Radulov, and Beaulieu against the middle competition.

In each competition category, most players had better shot suppression rates without Galchenyuk on the ice. No matter the quality of his opponents, he did struggle in defending shot attempts compared to his teammates.

This statement is further backed up by Hockey Viz’s relative-shots-against heatmap, showing Galchenyuk was clearly worse at covering the high-danger areas.

Conclusion

From the analysis, we can make an educated guess that the mistrust lies in the fact that Galchenyuk gets easily dominated on the ice by elite competition. Combined with the inconsistency of his production, it’s a nerve-wracking situation for the coaching staff.

The answer to how the team should deploy him moving forward, however, is fairly ambiguous. Despite being weaker against elite competition, Galchenyuk was able to help his line score more often than Danault and Plekanec could in much more ice time. He scores about 0.9 points per game from the centre position, but playing him there means more high-danger chances for Carey Price to save.

The coaches could leave him on the wing, limiting his negative impact on high-danger chances against, and hope they can find scoring elsewhere. Or they can move him back to centre, give him larger doses of elite competition, achieve higher goal outputs, and focus efforts on getting him to become better at defensive-zone coverage.

Either way, they need to pick how they want to use the young forward. He will only be a consistent top player for years to come if they can figure out exactly what his role should be.

Alex Galchenyuk will continue to be the ‘centre’ of debate in Montreal.