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Montreal Canadiens

Alex Galchenyuk emerges as lead centreman

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John Cordes/Icon Sportswire

One season after Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price rose to become the NHL’s top talent – snagging the 2015 Vezina Trophy, Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award, and William M. Jennings Trophy – Price’s club is in shambles.

The loss of their star netminder has plunged the Canadiens into a season of mediocrity, leaving them with the fourth-worst record in the Eastern Conference as 2015-16 comes to a close. However, there has been one lone bright spot from the lacklustre campaign — the arrival of Alex Galchenyuk as Montreal’s leading centreman.

The 22-year-old is finally living up to his potential for the Canadiens – through 75 games, he’s already set career-highs of 27 goals and 50 points, topping his previous bests from last season, when he finished with 20 goals and 46 total points.

Galchenyuk’s emergence has been a much-needed silver lining for Montreal as their initially promising season has become an injury-plagued disaster. Heading into an offseason that could have the team clamouring for changes, the Canadiens faithful are instead celebrating the breakout of their new top-tier pivot, while hoping Galchenyuk can continue his progress next season when Price returns.

Much of the young Russian’s arrival has hinged on his move back to the middle of the ice. Prior to this season, Today’s Slapshot discussed the potential for Galchenyuk to take a step forward in 2015-16 after general manager Marc Bergevin indicated the former third-overall draft pick would suit up primarily at his natural centre position – a welcome change after spending the majority of his previous season on the wing.

It took time, but Galchenyuk did manage to earn that time at centre, and he’s taken the torch and run with it since getting his opportunity.

Heading into a match-up with Winnipeg on March 5th, it was announced that Galchenyuk would move up to centre Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher on the top line – partly the result of a strong stretch that saw Galchenyuk post five goals in the five contests leading up to the tilt with Winnipeg.

Given the keys to Montreal’s offense, Galchenyuk continued to thrive – he posted two goals in his first game back on the top line, and went on to post four goals in his next two contests as well. All in all, he’s tallied a monstrous eight goals and 10 total points in the nine games he’s played as Montreal’s top centre. In the last month of NHL action, he’s been the league’s hottest goalscorer with 11 goals in 14 games.

With the recent outburst in tow, Galchenyuk now ranks as Montreal’s top goalscorer of 2015-16, leading elite linemate Pacioretty by two tallies.

While his success at centre has been a welcome surprise for the Canadiens, Galchenyuk’s progression is truthfully part of a larger progression that as taken place since his rookie year. He’s managed to increase his production each season, regardless of his continuously changing role.

At the core of this progression has been the growth of his shooting. Galchenyuk has upped his shots per game pace in each of his four campaigns, moving from 1.65 in his rookie season to 1.69, 2.04, and a career-best 2.53 this season. Interestingly, as he’s put more pucks on net, he’s also managed to convert more and more each year, raising his shooting percentage over that span as well. His percentage started out at 11.4 and has moved upwards each season, landing at a career-best 14.4 so far in 2015-16.

The result of that growth has been Galchenyuk scoring at a higher per-game rate in each of his four seasons as well, mirroring that step-by-step progression in his goals-per-game and points-per-game marks. Thus, while 2015-16 has been a clear step forward, there’s no mystery behind his improved performance. Galchenyuk has simply refined his game with each passing season, and is reaping the rewards of that steady approach.

It’s worth noting that Galchenuk is getting some considerable help from his coach, however. He’s starting 65.5 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone — the highest such percentage of any Canadiens player this season. That favourable usage makes up for his relatively low ice-time – his average of 16:07 minutes ranks fifth among Canadiens forwards, and is the lowest of any NHL skater who’s posted at least 26 goals this season. Factoring that ice-time discrepancy into the mix, we see that Galchenyuk ranks as the second-most effective point-producer among all Canadiens players with a mark of 2.48 points per 60 minutes.

In fact, zooming out to a league-wide perspective, it’s more clear just how elite Galchenyuk has been this season. His 1.34 goals per 60 minutes not only leads the Canadiens, but also ranks 12th among all NHL skaters (who have played over 50 games). That’s a more productive pace than those put forth by noted stars like John Tavares, James Neal, and Matt Duchene.

Though he’s flown somewhat under the radar through his first few seasons, Galchenyuk’s 2015-16 efforts have him earning a central role in the Canadiens’ plans. Now leading all 2012 draftees in goals, assists, and points — and hitting a new level since being given the lead role on Montreal’s top line — Galchenyuk has proven once again that he’s ready to lead his club’s offensive attack.

After putting forth the finest season by a 22-year-old Canadiens scorer since Saku Koivu’s 56-point effort in 1997, there’s no denying Galchenyuk is the real deal. Give him the chance to serve in his current offensive role for a full season, and Montreal will be able to truly appreciate the depth of their young star’s skill.

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