After losing two top players last summer, there were many questions as to who would lead the Montreal Canadiens’ offense.
For nearly a decade, Max Pacioretty was the go-to guy for putting pucks in the net. Pacioretty scored at least 30 goals five times with the team and was among the best left wingers in the NHL for quite a while. Even with his struggles this year in Vegas, that’s not an easy player to replace. And while Alex Galchenyuk definitely had his ups and downs with the Habs, he did muster 50-plus points twice during his time with the club and would have likely produced even more offense had he played center, his natural position, during his term with the organization.
But the departures of both left just one player on the current roster who had scored 30 goals in an NHL season before: Brendan Gallagher.
Gallagher has always shown flashes of offensive brilliance, scoring 31 times last season, a surprising statistic given he was primarily used in a shutdown role with Tomas Plekanec for most of last season before moving up the lineup due to injuries to other wingers. Gallagher had been a good offensive weapon in the past, too, as he's produced more than 40 points in all but two of his seven seasons in the NHL. But you can't ignore the jump in his goal-scoring ways over the past two years. In fact, thanks in part to his production over the past two seasons, Gallagher recently passed Pacioretty and tied Mark Napier for eighth in goals by a Canadiens player through the first seven years of his career. Gallagher should be able to pass Yvan Cournoyer before the season comes to an end, too.
If you weren't a Habs fan, though, it would have been easy to underestimate his abilities.
Signed at just $3.75-million through to the end of the 2020-21 season, Gallagher has been an absolute bargain for the Canadiens. He’s in the midst of another 30-goal season with the Canadiens, reaching the total against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, and Gallagher has quickly developed into one of the most dangerous right wingers in the league, even if his stat line looks more like a Cy Young winner with his 30 goals and 14 assists. Sitting fifth in points for the Canadiens, it’s his ability to score goals at such a high rate is that makes him so intriguing to watch.
What has made his season impressive is that he's tied for sixth in the NHL in even-strength goals while averaging just 16:28 in ice time. When you look at the players ahead of him – Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares, Jake Guentzel and Jeff Skinner – not only are they averaging nearly 20 minutes a game, they’re playing with some truly top talent. It goes without saying that most would rather have Sidney Crosby at center, as Guentzel does, than Phillip Danault, who has been Gallagher’s man down the middle for much of the year. But despite a second-tier top-line center, Gallagher is on pace for 37 goals and 54 points this year, and as a 26-year-old, is it crazy to think he can hit the 40-goal plateau before he turns 30?
With the young center pool the team has to choose from, not at all. Rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi has had a solid debut campaign with the Canadiens and will be a major top-six player for the Canadiens in another year or two. And then there’s Nick Suzuki, a key piece of the Pacioretty trade who has lit the OHL on fire since getting traded to the Guelph Storm in January and might not be far from becoming a top center in the NHL himself.
With all due respect to Danault, help is on the way for Gallagher, which makes his long-term future with the club exciting. It shouldn't be that much of a surprise a three-time 40-plus goal scorer in the WHL is finally having scoring success in the big leagues. It's time to look at him as a legitimate top-line scoring threat in the NHL and not just someone known for being a spark plug that gets his teammates going.