Of all the potential arbitration cases around the NHL this year, the one that truly needed to be avoided was Alex Galchenyuk and the Montreal Canadiens. Thankfully, the talented youngster signed a new three-year deal with the Canadiens on Wednesday, coming with a cap hit of $4.9 million. Because that arbitration hearing would have been awkward.
The Habs have consistently shaded Galchenyuk in public over the years, despite the fact he has been their only hope in developing a No. 1 center. Galchenyuk will be an unrestricted free agent once this new contract expires and this upcoming season will be the most crucial of his career and of GM Marc Bergevin’s tenure. Montreal’s time is now. Not three years from now, when the productivity of Shea Weber and even Carey Price will be unknowns.
The acquisition of Jonathan Drouin provides Galchenyuk with a potential running mate and I really, really hope coach Claude Julien gives Galchenyuk a long look at center in a top-six role – not on the fourth line. If there are mistakes at the beginning, so be it. Part of the reason Toronto’s rookies were so successful last season is that coach Mike Babcock put them in tough situations, even when they had made defensive mistakes in the past.
Now, the Maple Leafs were playing with house money because no one had any expectations for them last season, but if Montreal doesn’t develop its forward corps in short order, there should be no expectations for success there, either.
Could Drouin and Galchenyuk work as a tandem? Give it a whirl! Even though Galchneyuk is more of a finisher and Drouin a set-up ace, there’s no reason they couldn’t be a mini version of Steven Stamkos and Marty St-Louis, in that regard. And with Max Pacioretty theoretically on a different scoring line, the Habs could actually give opponents some match-up problems next season.
This all hinges, of course, on Galchenyuk stepping up and Drouin being the player we’ve seen for stretches in Tampa Bay (particularly the 2016 playoff run). For Galchenyuk, the first mission will be getting his faceoff acumen in order. This past season was a rough one in the dot for the kid, as he won just 42.7 percent of his draws. Remarkably, Galchenyuk was still a positive possession player, lending more credence to the theory that it’s what you do after the faceoff that’s more important than the draw itself. But yeah, improvement would help – why chance it?
There’s another possible outcome in this scenario, and that’s Drouin becoming the center and Galchenyuk playing on the wing. Drouin is no better than Galchenyuk on faceoffs, but if it works, then the Habs have solved their problem – as long as someone can be a No. 1 center, it doesn’t matter which one it is.
What cannot happen is Julien putting a short leash on either player. Structurally, the Canadiens won’t go anywhere with Tomas Plekanec as their top center and you only have to look at his career in Montreal as evidence (this isn’t meant to disparage Plekanec: he was a No. 2 during his peak; that was his lot in life. It’s not his fault the Habs couldn’t find a No. 1).
The worst-case scenario is that Galchenyuk continues to get shifted around the lineup, as has been the case in his NHL career to date. A lack of consistent linemates and little support from coaches and management hasn’t helped matters and it becomes a vicious cycle.
Even though Montreal has Galchenyuk for three more years now, it’s really less than that if the team and player can’t see eye-to-eye. If the Canadiens can’t figure out how to deploy Galchenyuk, they’ll have to trade him. And that would just waste more time for a franchise that doesn’t have any to spare.
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