Sarnia's Alex Galchenyuk is expected to go early at the NHL draft this June. (OHL Images)
Two elite players who rock ‘Black and Gold’ on a consistent basis will be back with their teams this week. Wednesday, the Ontario League’s Sarnia Sting welcome back center Alex Galchenyuk, who has missed the entire season with a knee injury. Thursday, some guy named Sid will be playing for Pittsburgh again.
Sidney Crosby’s concussion woes have been a dominant storyline and his return makes the Penguins an instant Stanley Cup contender – one of the favorites, actually. And as much pressure as there has been on Crosby, I have to tip my hat to Galchenyuk and the way he has handled his return to the ice.
This is Galchenyuk’s draft year and for a teenager, it’s the most important season of their lives. Never mind that coaches and GMs will tell them it’s what you do after you’re drafted that’s really important – everyone wants to go as high as possible and Galchenyuk was legitimate top-five coming into the campaign. When he wrecked his ACL in a pre-season game, things looked grim. For most of the early part of the season, the common logic was that the Sting pivot was done for the year. Then, there were rumblings early in 2012 he might come back.
I had even heard from multiple insiders that the end of February or beginning of March would be the target date. There was also talk this was too early. For the best and most brutal case study, look at Montreal’s Andrei Markov. The stalwart defenseman has been ravaged by knee injuries for years now and his competitive nature likely didn’t help matters.
Which is why it’s great that we’re into mid-March and only now are we seeing Galchenyuk. That extra couple weeks means a little more time to make sure everything is back to 100 percent. Scouts are now telling me knee injuries are less worrisome than in the past because of advanced surgical techniques, so if Galchenyuk is healthy, his struggle shouldn’t be held against him. Concussions, on the other hand, are more troublesome because it’s so much harder to gauge the long-term consequences.
That takes us to Crosby. He too has waited a long time for his (second) comeback, but comes in to a great situation. His Penguins are flying high, fellow center Evgeni Malkin is the leading candidate to win the Hart Trophy and the team is built for the playoffs. Sid didn’t need to rush back because his team was either going to miss the playoffs or be poised to do major damage (Crosby hasn’t been the only one on the shelf – Jordan Staal and Kris Letang were other key guys who missed time). Crosby now returns for the final 14 games of the regular season with a chance to get re-acclimated to game speed. Once the playoffs hit, he’ll be the freshest player in the NHL. Scary thought, eh?
Back in Sarnia, the Sting are lucky to get Galchenyuk back. His hands have been compared to Bobby Ryan’s and his attention to detail in all three zones evokes memories of the most famous Sarnia grad, Steven Stamkos. Potential No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov is also on the squad, as are a host of elite youngsters essentially brought in to bring fast glory to a franchise short of it. The OHL’s Western Conference is a minefield of dangerous teams and Sarnia is no guarantee to come out alive. But with Galchenyuk in the lineup, the Sting’s chances increase.
Scouts know what he can do thanks to his excellent rookie season in 2010-11, but try keeping a kid like this off the ice when he knows he can make a difference. I’m just glad he didn’t rush back, because we’ll be seeing a lot of ‘Gally’ in the next two decades thanks to his patience this year.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.