TORONTO - Brendan Gallagher was a reluctant veteran Tuesday.
The 21-year-old Edmonton native was among 25 top NHL prospects/rookies participating in the NHLPA's rookie showcase at Mastercard Centre. A finalist for league's top rookie award last season, the Montreal Canadiens forward shared the spotlight Tuesday with Nathan MacKinnon, the highly touted 17-year-old who went first overall to Colorado in this year's draft.
"They (rookies) haven't asked me anything but I don't think I'm a veteran by any means," Gallagher said with chuckle. "I'm still learning.
"I like talking to these guys and hearing the stories they have to tell. It's fun to meet these guys, have a few laughs together and get to know them a little bit more."
The five-foot-nine, 178-pound Gallagher wasn't invited to last year's showcase, which gives Panini America and Upper Deck the chance to photograph many of the game’s top young players for trading card and memorabilia launches. After starting the lockout-shortened season with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, Gallagher cracked Montreal's roster once the NHL campaign began.
The feisty right-winger not only impressed with his spirited play but finished tied for second on the team in goals (15) and game winners (three). Between Montreal and Hamilton, Gallagher had 25 goals and 23 assists in 80 combined games in his first full season of pro hockey.
Not bad for a player selected in the fifth round, No. 147 overall, in the 2010 NHL entry draft from WHL's Vancouver Giants. But Gallagher wasn't surprised.
"I never like to say it was unexpected because that's why you work and train so hard in the summer," he said. "You expect to be there but that said, you don't expect it to be handed to you, you need to work for it and can't take anything off.
"This summer I prepared the same way, did the exact same things. I'm taking nothing for granted."
Gallagher wants to prove he's much more than a one-year wonder in the NHL.
"I don't want to be complacent about a first year," he said. "I know a lot of guys have had good first years and struggle in their second so I'm aware of that.
"The most important thing is winning. I just want to be part of a winning hockey team and for me to contribute in that I need to continue to build on my season last year."
Especially after getting up close and personal with the likes of Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby.
"When you're skating with Crosby and he gets the puck in the neutral zone, he's gone," Gallagher said. "You see how explosive he is, how quick he is, how his decision-making process is right there and happens so quickly.
"To play against a guy like that you see the level he's at and the obvious improvement you can make."
A fact not lost on MacKinnon, who trains with Crosby in the off-season and says the Pittsburgh superstar understands when to offer sage advice while allowing a young player to find his own way.
"He's going to let me feel it out on my own but at the same time he's said a couple of things here and there," said MacKinnon, who like Crosby, is from Cole Harbour, N.S.
But participating players also attended a seminar by the NHLPA discussing the expectations they now face as pro hockey players. Defenceman Dylan McIlrath, a 20-year-old Winnipeg native selected 10th overall in 2010 by the New York Rangers, said the message was clear.
"Definitely, the spotlight is on you at all times," he said. "The biggest thing is always be professional.
"Obviously you can do what you want but always know, especially with social media these days, you have to present yourself in good manner."
The 2012-'13 campaign was a solid one for Montreal, which was second to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference with 29-14-5 record. But its season ended abruptly in a 4-1, opening-round playoff loss to the rival Ottawa Senators.
This off-season, Montreal signed centre Daniel Briere (four times a 30-goal scorer) and defenceman Doug Murray as free agents while acquiring six-foot-five, 228-pound forward George Parros from Florida.
"Daniel Briere (is) a very skilled, a smaller guy I can learn from and who I'm excited to be around," Gallagher said. "Douglas Murray is a presence to play against to say the least, a big body who is going to be effective on the penalty kill and will fit nicely into our core of six defencemen.''
Gallagher said Parros will not only boost Montreal's toughness but his presence should help keep rugged forwards like Brandon Prust on the ice more.
"Having (Parros) around, I think, just makes everyone feel more comfortable," Gallagher said. "We had guys (last year) who were willing to stand up . . . you look at a guy like Brandon Prust who would go fight (Toronto forward) Frazier McLaren, who is a much bigger guy, and he did very well.
"But for us to have Prust on the ice is big as well."