Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher poised for breakout season

Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin spoke ahead of Game 2 in the World Cup of Hockey final about the things he learned from his fellow Team Canada managers and coaches and how it makes him feel like a better GM now than he was before.

Lost seasons don’t typically perish in spectacular crashes; they slip away over weeks and months, when the ups are eventually fully obscured by the downs. Before that happens though, there are flickers of hope, signs that maybe — just maybe — a change will come.

Appropriately enough, the last moment of real optimism for the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens may have occurred on the first day of a new year. On that occasion, the Habs — desperate to stop a month-long slide down the standings — defeated the Boston Bruins 5-1 on New Year’s Day at the Winter Classic in Foxborough, Mass. Sparking the team was a one-and-one performance by Brendan Gallagher, who was playing for the first time in about six weeks thanks to a broken finger.

With Gallagher back, the downward spiral seemed like it could be stopped.

That notion didn’t last long however.

Montreal’s season continued to go as sideways as Gallagher’s finger was the night he blocked a Johnny Boychuk blast.

The fact the right-winger missed a combined 29 games with his damaged digit and a groin issue in March is, like everything else that happened to the Canadiens, a lost footnote in a post-mortem that simply reads: Carey Price Got Hurt. And just as Price’s injured knee — his last game came one after Gallagher was hurt versus the New York Islanders in late November — dominated headlines last year, his return is justifiably the biggest reason to believe Montreal won’t be an also-ran this season.

But 30-plus goals from Gallagher would go a long way toward erasing some bad memories, too.

At first blush, that’s a big ask for a guy who doesn’t ooze natural ability and has never exceeded 24 tallies during a four-year NHL career. Look closer, though — like, as close as Gallagher gets to opposing goalies — and you wonder if it’s that unreasonable.

In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, a 20-year-old Gallagher surprisingly made the Canadiens out of an abbreviated training camp and went on to net 15 goals in 44 games, a 28-goal pace over 82 outings. (For his efforts, Gallagher finished just behind winner Jonathan Huberdeau in Calder Trophy balloting.) While he found the net slightly less during the next two seasons, he was tracking career highs when injuries — for the first time in his career — struck last year.

Through 22 contests in 2015-16, Gallagher had nine goals, good for a 34-goal pace. His production dropped when he returned, but it’s fair to assume he was never 100 per cent healthy and, unlike when he left, he was now toiling for a team in complete disarray. All told, he still managed 19 goals in 53 games, which projects to a 29-goal showing.

At 24, Gallagher has more than just his own development going for him. Unlike past seasons, he now appears to be a lock on the top line with Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty. Previously, Gallagher was a guy who moved up and down the lineup because coach Michel Therrien thought the sparkplug would always jumpstart any trio he was on. That was nice for the team, but not necessarily the best driver of Gallagher’s numbers.

With regard to the 30-goal plateau, Galchenyuk hit it last year for the first time in his career. Assuming there’s still a mile or two to go in his offensive growth, Gallagher figures to spend this season beside the most capable centre he’s ever been paired with. And of course, Pacioretty is an established 30-goal man whose unsuccessful shots can often be turned into rebound chances for Gallagher.

One of the biggest good-to-great leaps last year came from the Bruins’ Brad Marchand, who at age 28, upped his career best from 28 goals to 37. The links between Marchand and Gallagher include winning gold together with Canada at the 2016 world championship, playing on different sides of a great NHL rivalry, succeeding with smaller statures, and having all mail sent to an address that’s permanently located somewhere under opponents’ skin.

Could the next similarity be a significant spike in production?

Marchand just signed an eight-year contract extension with the Bruins that will see him make an average of $6.125 million annually beginning next fall. Gallagher, by contrast, will only count for $3.75 million against Montreal’s cap through 2020-21, meaning even if more goals don’t come, he still provides outstanding value.

That said, the smart money seems to be on the man who never stops moving, elevating to another level.

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