“Am I still answering this question right now?”
That’s what Alex Galchenyuk said last week when a reporter asked him whether he’d be playing center or wing this season. The response wasn’t meant to be condescending. The 22-year-old pivot is known for having a good sense of humor, but it’s easy to see why he’d find the question a funny one.
His head coach, Michel Therrien had already confirmed that Galchenyuk would be the top-line center for the Montreal Canadiens this summer, squashing any doubts pundits and fans may have had about the arrangement. Therrien isn’t always the most flexible of coaches, and he’s been known to run his players through the line blender from time to time, but he knows a good thing when he sees it.
And Galchenyuk proved to be an absolute force after he was moved to his natural position of center with just 17 games remaining in an otherwise lost season for the Canadiens. He was (finally) given the keys to the top line when David Desharnais went down with an injury in early March. The former third-overall pick proceeded to go on a tear, scoring 11 goals and adding six assists in those final 17 contests.
Funny what a little affirmation from a head coach can do for a young player. Through the first 66 games of the season, Galchenyuk was relegated to playing on the third or fourth line. His most common linemates during five-on-five play last year were Lars Eller and Sven Andrighetto. He also spent a lot of time skating with puck possession pit Alexander Semin.
All told, Galchenyuk spent just 5.5 percent of his even-strength time on a line with both Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher, which will be Montreal’s top line when the 2016-17 season opens next month.
So Galchenyuk managed a 30-goal season while skating with (mostly) bad linemates and averaging just over 16 minutes of ice time per night. This year, he’ll have better linemates by a landslide and should also see his time-on-ice spike as well. Consider that Pacioretty averaged 18:32 of ice time per game, and you start to see the disparity.
A healthy Gallagher is a near-lock for more than 20 goals — he scored 19 in just 53 games last year and 24 in 82 contests in 2014-15 — and only five active forwards have scored more goals than Pacioretty over the last three seasons. Put Galchenyuk and his 30-plus goal potential between those two, and Montreal could have one of the most electric top lines in the NHL. It’s tough to predict what Therrien will do with his lines and finding reasons for his demotions/promotions can be difficult, but this trio looks too good to pass up.
Even if the bench boss ultimately decides that he once again prefers Desharnais as his top-line center (or Tomas Plekanec), Galchenyuk should still find himself in a better position to succeed than he was in last year. If he ends up demoted to the second line, he would likely be playing with Andrew Shaw and Alexander Radulov. There isn’t quite as much firepower between those two, but it beats playing with a grinder like Eller.
Montreal endured one of the worst backslides in NHL history last season when Carey Price got hurt. The organization has made numerous changes to try and shift the team’s culture, trading away P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, trading for Shaw’s rights and signing him and adding the ultra-competitive Radulov to the mix.
No only will Galchenyuk have the opportunity to establish himself as one of the top goal scoring centers in the league this season. He will also have the chance to prove that he can be a central, more vocal, part of the Canadiens’ locker room as they attempt to bounce back from a truly embarrassing campaign.
You may or may not agree with the roster restructure that occurred this summer, but it will very likely benefit Galchenyuk greatly. He should also see some big minutes on a new-look power play. One that the incoming Kirk Muller will put his fingerprints all over during training camp. He’s coming over from the St. Louis Blues, where he also ran their power play, and they had the sixth-best unit in the NHL last year. Montreal was ranked 25th, and Galchenyuk still managed to notch nine goals while skating a man up.
He didn’t hit the ground running in the NHL and it has taken him a few years to get physically ready to be the No. 1 center for the Habs. This will be Galchenyuk’s breakout season, though, and barring injury, he has the tools needed to make some noise among the better players in the league. More importantly, he will have the opportunity to finally cash in on his high-draft-pick pedigree.