Fresh off of signing a three-year, $14.7 million deal that made him the third-highest-paid forward on the Montreal Canadiens’ roster, Alex Galchenyuk is heading into this season with something to prove after what was a very tumultuous 2016-17 campaign.
The 23-year-old, who has been in the NHL for five seasons already, has had to endure a great deal of controversy. What exactly this player adds up to, with all of his skill and untapped potential, is still being debated. But with this being his sixth year in the league, is it possible that the player we’ve seen amounts to exactly the player he is?
If so, this is not a bad thing.
Last season, he started off strong, with 23 points in his first 24 games, ranking among the top 10 in league scoring at the time. Immediate chemistry with Alexander Radulov seemed to drive Galchenyuk to a new level.
But then a knee injury in December, and a re-aggravation of the same injury in January, knocked him off course, only able to put up 20 more points in the 45 games he played after his return.
Those final games came with very little stability; he played at centre, on the wing, and up and down the lineup from the first line to the fourth.
Finding his true place on the team seems more like a management or coaching responsibility than Galchenyuk needing to discover the ideal role for himself. The fact that the organization has not really committed to grooming him for a fixed, long-term position in the lineup does seem to have hurt his production, as was demonstrated in his struggles to make an impact in the second half of last season.
Despite the circumstances, with a three-year commitment from the Canadiens, he will be depended on for goal-scoring production next season, as he is one of only two players on the roster to have attained the 30-goal mark. Although it is uncertain where he will slot into the lineup, Claude Julien’s challenge will be to put Galchenyuk wherever he will produce the most and have the greatest positive impact on his linemates.
Despite his last season being a disappointment as far as his General Manager was concerned, Galchenyuk still ranked 37th in the league in points per 60 minutes, and first on the team; ahead of Max Pacioretty and Radulov.
In the midst of what was a chaotic season for both the player and the team, such a high level of offence should overshadow any identified weaknesses in his game.
Galchenyuk once again claimed the top spot in the rankings, running his streak to four years as the top Canadiens player under the age of 25.
It wasn’t a unanimous decision by any means, with a quarter of the ballots placing Jonathan Drouin ahead of him this year. Whether Galchenyuk can wrap up his eligibility with a five-year run at #1 will likely be determined by the performances of those two players in 2017-18.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Galchenyuk’s first appearance on this list was in 2012, where he was immediately recognized as one of the top young talents on the team, matching his draft position to rank at #3. He rose to #2 when Pacioretty graduated from the project the next year, and has sat on the throne since the summer of 2014.
Galchenyuk is a creative, offensively gifted player. He is at his best when attacking the offensive zone with speed while receiving support from his linemates to keep defenders on their toes. In order to maximize this strength, it takes those linemates being on the same wavelength of creativity as he is so they can act off his cues and be in the right position to receive a pass or create space for him to move in close to the net.
He is tough to play against in tight spaces. He is a very quick player who is able to make unpredictable plays. It’s obvious that he is the kind of player who thrives on creating offence, and gets a thrill from being the one to score goals.
Oozing with offensive talent and drive, Galchenyuk’s best asset has to be his shot. He is able to launch powerful shots in tight spaces, and has one of the most accurate releases on the team. That makes him an important player at both five-on-five and on the power play, although he was often inexplicably held to a more limited role on the man advantage at times last season.
He was on the ice for about 30 seconds less per game than Pacioretty and Radulov on the power play, and his season average of 2:14 was just marginally above that of Andrew Shaw, who was often selected to join the top two when up a man.
That decision made little sense as Galchenyuk was the top forward on the team (among players to play at least half the games) in power-play goals per 60 minutes (2.6), and second in assists per 60 (3.5). The combined 6.1 points per hour was the best mark on the team.
With all the skills at Galchenyuk’s disposal, it seems the managerial and coaching focus has been on getting him to improve his weaknesses. If you’ve been a fan of this team for the last five years, and have watched closely, it’s hard to understand why he is so maligned.
One would think that with a young player, the emphasis would be on propping up what he is good at, and supporting him on what he is not good at. In the case of Galchenyuk, it seems like the strategy has been to use his love of offence in a reward/punishment system, as whenever he has shown any signs of struggle in his defensive game — whether on faceoffs (where he has just a 42% success rate), coverage in the defensive zone, or backchecking — he gets his offensive opportunities taken away from him.
It is true that in order to be an elite top-line player you have to be able to play a complete game, and compete with the top players in the league night in and night out. This is where Galchenyuk’s game still needs work, but, despite the criticism he’s publicly received over the years, it shouldn’t be his fight alone.
This is not to say his defensive play is good. He had the highest shot-attempts-against mark on the entire team last season, surrendering about one shot toward his goal in each minute of five-on-five time he played. With his offensive skills he was able to finish with a positive Corsi differential, but reducing the shots against will allow him to make a much more positive impact.
His defensive play must be improved upon in order for him to be considered a top forward in the game. With a new head coach in town, there is hope that his contributions and skill can be recognized first and foremost, and his weaknesses on the defensive side of the game managed and improved in a way that doesn’t limit his offensive game.
Galchenyuk is a top-line player. Whether he is a number-one centre is still to be determined. His poor showing in the faceoff circle is one aspect of his game that will keep questions about his ability to play a centre role in the mind of his coaches.
With the validation of his first substantial pro contract under his belt, Galchenyuk may enter the season with a newfound sense of comfort, though also knowing he has a lot to prove. The upper limits of his potential are hard to predict, however even the lower limit of his promise would still project him as one of the most important producers on the team next season.
Overall, he is an exciting player with a powerful offensive arsenal with some maturity still left to find in his game. Whether or not he is open to putting to good use the advice and coaching he receives next season is the question. Does he have it in him to step up to a new level in his career where he is considered by his peers, coaches, and management to be a legitimate NHL star?
There is no question Alex Galchenyuk believes himself to be such a player. It is only a matter of him using next season to convince everyone else.
Stats via Natural Stat Trick