One reason the Habs have been so unbeatable early this season? Moving Alex Galchenyuk to his natural position of center. Can he help them become true Cup contenders?
Some stories write themselves, and Alex Galchenyuk opened 2015-16 using the ice as his personal typwriter.
This season was supposed to mark the breakout for Galchenyuk, 21, whom the Montreal Canadiens drafted third overall in 2012. It was a logical progression for a youngster who set career highs across the board last season, notching 20 goals and 46 points. And there he was, in Montreal’s first game of the season Oct. 7, rifling home the game-winning goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. And there he was again, tasked with shutdown duty in the final minute after the Leafs pulled goaltender Jonathan Bernier. Galchenyuk started the season in which he’s expected to become Montreal’s most important forward by…being Montreal’s most important forward. It was too perfect.
Why the extra pressure for Galchenyuk all of a sudden? Because he represents the closest thing to a major off-season acquisition GM Marc Bergevin could muster. The Habs did very little to improve a good team that had trouble scoring and depended too much on all-universe goalie Carey Price. Free agent signee Alexander Semin is a lottery ticket, and trading Brandon Prust for Zack Kassian quickly blew up in the team’s face after Kassian was injured in a car accident while riding with an impaired driver. The key to Montreal’s offense spiking: improving from within the organization by giving its best young player a new assignment. It was time to move Galchenyuk to his natural position of center.
He’d spent most of his first three years in the NHL on the left wing, as the Habs deployed some permutation of Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais and Lars Eller as their top three pivots. But none of that trio, not even Plekanec in his best years, constituted a true No. 1 center, the type worthy of feeding stud goal scorer Max Pacioretty and challenging for a league scoring crown. Galchenyuk, whom scouts compared to Ron Francis leading up to the 2012 draft, is the lone Canadien capable of growing into that role.
Imagine Galchenyuk’s pleasure, then, during a summer lunch with coach Michel Therrien, when Therrien offered the position change.
“It was just nice to see him, to talk to me, believing in me, and he asked if I would feel comfortable going to center,” Galchenyuk said.
He accepted the challenge in a heartbeat.
“Just an overall good lunch. It’s a different atmosphere in the restaurant than the locker room. Especially since the steak was pretty good, too,” Galchenyuk laughed.
He finally got to start a training camp knowing he’d play center in the top six, albeit not on Pacioretty’s line just yet. Galchenyuk commenced the year between Semin and Eller on the second line. The unit remains intact, as does the Habs' perfect record at 6-0-0. No longer worrying about the wing gave Galchenyuk more time to work on faceoffs, which he did with the virtuoso Plekanec, though Galchenyuk insists their playing styles are very different and there was only so much he could absorb. Still, he was eager to test his progress practically after winning only 44.6 percent of the 327 draws he took in his first three campaigns.
“No matter how hard I worked in the summer on faceoffs, I didn’t take them as much the last couple years,” Galchenyuk said. “So I only get better by repetition.”
He knows the Canadiens need him to score, maybe break 25 goals and 60 points, if they want to improve on last year, when they ranked 20th in goals and lost in the Eastern Conference semifinal to the Tampa Bay Lightning. And, with five points through six games, he's delivering on expectations so far. But Galchenyuk doesn’t take for granted the defensive responsibilities every center must shoulder. He relishes them. He couldn’t be clear enough how happy he was to be trusted with Game 1 of the season on the line. It set a tone for the year.
“Yeah, absolutely, no doubt,” he said. “I’m trying to focus on the defensive zone, trying to be solid and spend a lot of time in practices focusing and looking at systems. It was nice to be out there, and hopefully it will continue to be that way.”
It’s not like Montreal lacks for star power. Price is arguably the greatest player on the planet today, and P.K. Subban is among the sport’s pre-eminent blueliners. But for true Stanley Cup contention, this team needs growth from the inside out. And maybe Galchenyuk is ready to rub shoulders with the team’s elite contributors.
“I look forward to watching his progress as a player in this league,” Subban said. “He continues to mature. People can’t forget his age, how young he is. He’s unbelievable for his age. He’s just going to continue to get better.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin