Brendan Gallagher is arguably the best success story in the history of the EOTP top 25 under 25. Debuting just inside the cut at 24th in 2010, he rose in rank every year and now sits as your 2014 runner-up. An undersized fifth-round pick, few could have confidently predicted him becoming a legitimate top-six NHL forward when he was drafted. Although for what it's worth, he did make the inaugural EOTP list ahead of two guys drafted ahead of him.
I think a quote from Brendan Gallagher himself should suffice to describe his playing style: "I like to get hit, it gets me into the game." Where you'd usually expect a smaller player to use speed and elusiveness to achieve success, Gally makes a point of getting physical, and going hard into areas where you know well ahead of time that you're going to get hit. Simply put, he has no fear. None.
He came rather close to cracking the roster back in 2011, spent the lockout testing his pro hockey legs in Hamilton, and transitioned almost immediately into a top-six role with the Canadiens once a new CBA was in place. Not too shabby for a fifth-round selection.
The panel was nearly unanimous in our placement of Gallagher this year. All but three votes had him in second place, with Andrew, Bruce and Justin each placing Nathan Beaulieu ahead of him on their respective ballots.
Well, strength! Say what you will about Brendan Gallagher's size, but don't forget this is the son of a professional strength and conditioning coach. Gallagher more than makes up for his lack of natural size with relentless effort; he can win positional battles against much bigger opponents, and he seems to have a bottomless gas tank too. He is basically everything that you need to be in order to overcome the "too small" tag, and he's been doing a damned good job of it.
His ability to play the bigger man's game down low leads to him putting a lot of rubber on net. Aside from Gallagher, only Max Pacioretty generated more shots for the Canadiens in 2013-2014. Looking at his shot tracking from sportingcharts.com, you can see that the bulk of his shot production is coming in tight. I look at this as a very encouraging sign; his shooting percentage was a shade over 9% last year, down from 12.8% the previous year, but if he continues doing work in those high percentage areas, it stands to reason that figure will be on the rise.
He's developed into a nice powerplay weapon as well. The coaching staff saw fit to give him significantly more looks with the man advantage last year, and he responded with seven goals on 29 shots, nearly a 25% shooting percentage. His excellent offensive positioning and willingness to get into the dirty areas is a huge benefit on the powerplay
I may be going a little long on the strengths, but his offensive positioning is something that absolutely needs to be addressed herein. I think a great example is in the video below from the playoffs. While P.K. Subban electrifies, Gallagher constantly has his head on a swivel and makes himself available for the eventual Subban pass. Even when he's not making his home in the crease, he knows where he needs to go and adapts very well to changing coverage.
He's put to bed any criticism about his size in relation to his ability to play in the NHL, at least any with merit. There will however always be some though who will worry that his style of play in the NHL may lead to injury issues, because of his size. I won't deny that I get a little worried when I see him going hard at Zdeno Chara down low, but if he wasn't going after that troglodyte with no regard for his own safety, he wouldn't be Brendan Gallagher. Asking him to change his game due to the possible risk of injury would be a terrible mistake.
Not that I would want to get him away from his game, but if he could work on his distance shot a little I wouldn't be mad about it. I feel at times when he's outside 15-20 feet he tries to go a little high and winds up padding the shot blockers stats. He's shown off his shot before and I think he could do even more with it if he can utilize screens more effectively.
It's also not certain that he's fully equipped for tough defensive minutes a la Tomas Plekanec. He has definitely made improvements in his defensive game, but there are still some lingering positional issues. He is now arguably the number one right winger on the Canadiens roster, so I would expect that this will be a focus for him and the coaching staff in terms of his continued development.
#3 Nathan Beaulieu
In the spring of 2014, Nathan Beaulieu finally seemed to make the breakthrough we've been expecting with the Canadiens, playing ahead of veterans and taking a regular shift in the playoffs. Will he get a chance at a permanent roster spot in 2014-15, and can he develop into a top defender within a couple of seasons?
While we spend most of the top 25 projecting younger players as to their future NHL potential, Gally is already a top-six NHL forward. I'm not sure he'll ever be a 40-goal scorer or the guy who wins a boatload of awards, but he's been surpassing expectations since he was drafted, so it's pretty damn hard to put a ceiling on this kid.
Where he will or should line up this year however is something that we can definitely discuss. He did well alongside David Desharnais and Pacioretty, but with the addition of P.A. Parenteau and likely one of Sven Andrighetto or Jiri Sekac, it's hard to say exactly where he'll slot in this year. That said, I'd expect him to be logging close to, if not the most minutes of all the right wingers this season.
As this is the final year of his entry-level contract, we'll be heading into the always fun phase of contract negotiations following this season. Luckily for Habs fans, Marc Bergevin's strong precedent of signing all players to bridge deals coming out of their ELCs should likely make the process easy on the stomach.