The biggest change roster-wise from the end of last season to the start of this one for the Montreal Canadiens wasn’t an acquisition or trade, but the commitment to finally moving Alex Galchenyuk from the left wing to the centre position.
The move was long overdue; after three seasons in the NHL, and a couple of brief but successful stints at centre, Galchenyuk was at the point where the organization needed to find out where he would play in the future.
Much has been made of Galchenyuk’s lack of production at centre this season, even though he’s currently on pace for 48 points, which would be a career high. There are several factors that make that number more impressive as well, including the fact that he has been unlucky in terms of scoring. Galchenyuk has scored on just 7.3 per cent of his shots on goal, well below his career average of 11.5 per cent, and he’s done it while producing the third-most scoring chances on the Canadiens – good for 21st-most in the entire NHL at even strength.
Add in the fact that Galchenyuk has been getting third line ice time at best, leads all Habs forwards in primary assists with eight, and you begin to realize exactly how well he’s been playing offensively, he just hasn’t been rewarded with goals.
However the big change from centre to wing isn’t about point production, it’s about your defensive play. It was a big worry that Galchenyuk wouldn’t be able to handle the extra responsibility in his own zone, so how has he done so far?
The way we’re going to look at Galchenyuk’s defensive play is relatively simple, we’re going to compare him to his teammates on a relative scale. Meaning, if Galchenyuk makes 5.2 successful stick checks every 20 minutes at even strength, and the average Habs forward makes 4.7, Galchenyuk will be +0.5 for successful stick checks per 20 minutes, relative to his teammates.
We’re going to look at three categories of defensive play; plays without the puck, plays he makes in the defensive zone once he gets the puck, and puck management.
It’s important to note the scale on this graph, because no matter the statistic, Galchenyuk isn’t very far from team average. He’s a tiny bit below average in getting in front of shots, and lays fewer hits, but he’s slightly above average in stick checks, and the biggest outlier is that he’s great at blocking passes. These four statistics make up the total of successful defensive plays, so you can see that because of Galchenyuk’s ability to block passes successfully, he is overall more successful defensively without the puck than team average, even if only slightly.
Galchenyuk really stands out defensively when the puck is on his stick. He leads all Canadiens forwards in controlled exits out of the defensive zone, and is 10th in the entire league among forwards in carry-out exits. Galchenyuk also makes the second-most defensive zone passes among forwards on the team, showing that he prefers to make plays to break out cleanly, enhancing the team’s transition play. Consequently, Galchenyuk is below team average in dump outs, which is a large part of the defensive zone strategy of the Canadiens.
However, because of Galchenyuk’s decision making, the Canadiens allow fewer shots against per 20 minutes at even strength while he’s on the ice than any other regular forward.
There are a couple things to note here. First: Galchenyuk being below average for the rate at which he dumps the puck out vs. carrying or passing it out is a good thing. No regular roster player on the Canadiens chooses to dump the puck out less often than Galchenyuk does, which is a big reason why his shots against numbers are so low.
With that said, his success rate dumping the puck out is also a team low, as he fails a whopping 41.9 per cent of the time. This was an area of struggle for Galchenyuk last year as well, and it’s possibly a motivating factor behind why he so rarely dumps the puck out.
The other noteworthy portion of the graph is that the turnover rates are the opposite of what you think. Galchenyuk turns the puck over less than team average in the defensive zone, but more than team average in the neutral zone. In fact, Galchenyuk has the fourth-lowest turnover rate among Habs forwards in the defensive zone.
Galchenyuk’s excellent turnover rate in the defensive zone is even more impressive when you factor in his low success rate in dump outs, meaning that when he doesn’t choose to attempt a dump out, he’s even more successful. Essentially, Galchenyuk is better at making the more difficult, more rewarding plays.
Overall, it has been an extremely strong defensive start for Galchenyuk at the centre position, and unless you believe Galchenyuk is a point per game player at the age of 21, it hasn’t hindered his ability to produce offensively either. The next step will be to get him more than third line minutes, something the coaching staff seems hesitant to do for whatever reason, as he has hit his average ice time from last season just once in 22 games.
He has earned more.