The response of an offense-starved team has been to repeatedly demote a purely offensive player to a checking-line role. Why not do the opposite and park him on line 1?
The eye test wasn’t kind to Alex Galchenyuk in the Montreal Canadiens’ Tuesday loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. He turned over the puck multiple times. He attempted lazy passes in traffic. He showed all the urgency of a sedated sloth on a few of his backchecks.
So I get it. The Habs coaching staff and a good chunk of the team’s fan base wants to see more out of Galchenyuk, who inked a three-year, $14.7-million extension over the summer. He skated on the fourth line with Torrey Mitchell and Ales Hemsky at Wednesday’s practice. The philosophy seems to be that he has to show some defensive acumen to earn a bigger role on the team. And that’s nothing new. On and off since Galchenyuk first cracked Montreal’s lineup full time in 2012-13, there’s been a push and pull between him and the higher ups, be they GM Marc Bergevin, previous coach Michel Therrien or current coach Claude Julien. Galchenyuk has teased with his pure scoring ability, having broken out for 30 goals in 2015-16 and scoring at a better than a point-per-game pace through the 20-game mark of last season. He’s also drawn the ire of his coaches for subpar two-way ability and has been repeatedly yanked away from his natural position of center. Bergevin appeared to hammer the final nail into the coffin on that discussion over the summer when he announced, “I’ve seen Alex every day, and at this time, centerman is a tough position, demanding, and I’m sure as we speak today Alex is not able to play that position every day. And I don’t need 10 more tries. I know he’s not.”
The response whenever Galchenyuk shows a lack of versatility and defensive responsibility has been consistent: whack the puppy over the nose with a newspaper rather than using positive reinforcement, a.k.a. a little bit of love. Galchenyuk finished last season as a fourth-liner. The big contract extension this summer appeared to be a vote of confidence, but not only did he not end up at center, he debuted on the third line with Philip Danault and Andrew Shaw. Now it’s another “Bad dog!” and a demotion to the fourth line.
Ever wonder if this has become a chicken-and-egg situation in Montreal, though? Maybe he’s moping on his backchecks because his team has shown zero confidence him him. Fine, so Galchenyk hasn’t worked hard enough without the puck to “earn” a plum scoring assignment. But how hard did Alexander Semin work on defense in Washington when he was scoring 40 goals? How many Selke Trophies have Pavel Bure or Phil Kessel won? The point isn’t to compare Galchenyuk’s skill set directly to those players. It’s merely to illustrate there’s such a thing as a one-dimensional hockey player and that such a player can be mighty useful when deployed effectively. Do the San Jose Sharks get mad at Marc-Edouard Vlasic for not scoring enough? No. He’s an outstanding defensive defenseman whose offense is a bonus when it happens. You don’t see Peter DeBoer forcing Vlasic onto a top power play role to “work on his offense,” so why do we see the reverse with scoring forwards who aren’t playing good defense? Is the best solution really to stuff them onto a checking line, thus muting the one thing they do best? Wouldn’t Galchenyuk help the Canadiens the most if given a pure scoring assignment? This team averages a league-worst ONE goal per game through four contests. And Julien’s response after the fourth game is to take the player with more goals than every Hab except Max Pacioretty over the past six seasons…and park said player on the fourth line.
Maybe, just maybe, it would pay for the Canadiens to try positive reinforcement with Galchenyuk. Play him on the top line with Pacioretty and Jonathan Drouin. You’d likely see a lot more jump in Galchenyuk’s step as a result, even in his own zone. Maybe he’s simply the type of player who responds better to “I know you can do this” than “you don’t deserve the chance to do this yet.”
The underlying numbers reinforce the idea that Galchenyuk is a one-way player. According to corsica.hockey, Galchenyuk has the fifth-best relative Corsi For percentage 5-on-5 among Habs forwards who have played at least 1,000 minutes over the past three seasons, and it jumps to fourth if you exclude Alexander Radulov, who no longer plays for the team. It’s clearer what Galchenyuk is if you divide up the offense and defense. His Corsi Against per 60 over that three-year span is the second-worst among the 15 forwards who qualify for the sample. His Corsi For puts him in the top five. So when Galchenyuk is on the ice, a lot of shots fly toward the other team’s net and also toward his net, but the shot attempt edge skews more toward Montreal than to the rival. His possession impact overall is positive and reflects that of a top-six forward.
So why keep stuffing this very square peg into a very round hole? Galchenyuk is who he is. If anything, such a one-way player should be used in an exclusively offensive role, no? Let the Paul Byrons and Andrew Shaws of the world toil in shutdown duty and use Galchenyuk to do what, evidently, is the one thing he does well: generate scoring chances.
And if we subscribe to the theory he’s not long for Montreal, and that it’s only a matter of time before Bergevin deals him…heck, the fourth line isn’t exactly a prime display window for shoppers, is it? Perhaps puffing up Galchenyuk’s numbers with skilled linemates and an ice time increase would inflate that trade value. And there’s really nothing to lose for the Habs at this point. They’re already dead last in offense. So enough with the corporal punishment. Free Alex Galchenyuk.