Galchenyuk emerging into No. 1 centre Canadiens crave

Alex Galchenyuk talks about the Canadiens 2-1 victory over the Maple Leafs.

BROSSARD, Que.— It’s been almost 21 years since Pierre Turgeon scored 96 points in 80 games with the Montreal Canadiens.

The team hasn’t had a centre produce at least a point per game since, until now.

Alex Galchenyuk, who has 19 points in 19 games and is currently tied with St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko for seventh in NHL scoring, is looking like the bona fide No. 1 centre the Canadiens have been waiting on for more than two decades.

“It’s still early in the season and there’s still a lot of work to be done,” cautioned the 22-year-old after Canadiens practice on Monday.

There’s a strong case to be made that Galchenyuk will maintain this pace and not regress. Let’s start with the production he enjoyed as the team’s top centre over the final 22 games of the 2015-16 season in which he scored 13 goals and 22 points. He’s also entering his fifth season with the Canadiens and he’s developed instant chemistry with linemate Alexander Radulov.

That last point is especially key.

Galchenyuk has produced six goals and eight assists in nine games alongside Radulov, and he has an idea as to why the two have enjoyed so much success alongside each other.

“You can’t have all the guys on the line thinking pass first or shoot first. You gotta have a mix of both,” said Galchenyuk. “I know he has a great shot, but I’ve been on the shooting side lately. But it makes us a better threat each being able to do both.”

Perhaps Galchenyuk’s versatility is a result of all the time he spent on the wing prior to this season. He said playing the wing gave him time to figure out how to score goals in this league, with close to half of his 30 markers last season coming from that position.

But when asked, Galchenyuk says a bigger factor in his ability to score goals from the centre position is his desire to be unique. And unique is a good word to describe Galchenyuk’s style.

There’s chaos in the way he carries the puck, moving in different directions as he stickhandles. He can slow the game down and speed it up with equal ease. And he’s one of a few top-line centres — Los Angeles Kings centre Jeff Carter and Tampa Bay Lightning centre Steven Stamkos are others who come to mind — who serve as the goal scorer on his line rather than the playmaker.

But Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber, who has played with both Carter and Stamkos in international competition, says Galchenyuk is a different breed.

“I don’t even think Carter and Stamkos are similar; I think they’re both great players but very different from one another,” said Weber. “All three of them are great players. I think if you ask [Galchenyuk], he probably thinks he’s his own guy. I don’t know if he compares himself to anybody.”

Turns out Galchenyuk doesn’t. His father told him very early in his career not to copy anyone.

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien isn’t interested in making comparisons, either, but he did say one quality Galchenyuk shares with some of best is a strong work ethic.

“He works extremely hard after practice,” explained Therrien. “Players who have success—it doesn’t [just] come if you’re gifted offensively; it doesn’t come with ‘I’m just going to show up and do my little things and if I have results, [then] good.’

“This kid works extremely hard and that’s the reason he has results.”

Therrien says Galchenyuk’s work ethic is the main reason he’s unconcerned about his 40 per cent efficiency in the faceoff circle this season.

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The coach noted last week that he’s seen major improvement in other areas where Galchenyuk was less than elite in previous seasons. He said he’s impressed with Galchenyuk’s play without the puck and his positioning in the defensive zone.

“Winning faceoffs comes down to repetition, quickness and timing,” said teammate Andrew Shaw. “He’ll get better at it, there’s no doubt.”

If Galchenyuk does, the pending restricted free agent is going to give agent Pat Brisson all the ammunition he needs in negotiating on his behalf for a long-term contract with the Canadiens.

Galchenyuk’s point-per-game play is already all but guaranteeing a considerable increase on his $3.1 million salary.

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