BROSSARD, Que.— When Alex Galchenyuk forced a pass right through the middle of his own zone and gifted Patrik Laine a golden scoring opportunity, it was just one of several glaring mistakes he made in the Montreal Canadiens‘ 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets last Saturday.
But that mistake, which Canadiens goaltender Carey Price erased with a highlight-reel glove save, was one that contextualized the challenge new coach Claude Julien faces with Galchenyuk.
How can Julien get the 23-year-old to buy into the more complex work that goes into playing without the puck when he struggles with something as basic as not forcing passes through the middle of the ice in his own zone? Moreover, how can he do it quickly?
"Galchenyuk’s five years into his career," said an Eastern Conference scout via text. "I know he played the wing for a while, but he should be further along in that department. He should know how to play better in his own end as a centre by now."
It makes you wonder how much of an influence Julien can have in the matter.
No one expects him to turn Galchenyuk into the second coming of multiple Selke Award winner Patrice Bergeron, but he’s under pressure to get something better out of him from a defensive standpoint.
Considering Julien’s philosophy on the game, it’s highly unlikely he’s going to depend on Galchenyuk to play top minutes against top opposition if he can’t trust him to be more responsible.
"If we’re better defensively, we can [get the puck turned over] quickly," said Julien on Monday. "I want us to play with the puck, not without it. We tried to instill that in the players and the players obviously know that if they do it right the first time, we’re not going to spend as much time in our own end. That’s what I’m looking for."
If he believed Galchenyuk was ready to offer that consistently, he would’ve kept him on the team’s top line for more than two periods of Saturday’s game instead of moving him to the third line with Artturi Lehkonen and Andrew Shaw for the final 20 minutes.
Over the last two days of practice, Galchenyuk has lined up with Paul Byron to his left and Brendan Gallagher to his right on the team’s second unit. Just like the rest of his teammates, he’s been working on adapting to Julien’s style.
He’s made it clear he understands Julien’s message.
"We have to be more compact, and that will make us go out there and get chances to get things going offensively," Galchenyuk said.
When asked what he feels he needs to focus on most, he responded, "Everything."
Julien wasn’t more forthcoming with details of Galchenyuk’s flaws. He simply said in French that centres, in particular, must always lend support to their teammates in the defensive zone.
"I know he’s a very talented player, highly skilled," said Julien. "Certainly, he’s still a young player. My job is to make him better. My job is to help him get better… I want to work with him on the little aspects of the game that’s going to make him even better."
Galchenyuk is a player who progressed significantly over the last year — one who ranked among the top five NHL scorers through the first third of this season before a knee injury kept him out of action for six weeks. Only notching a goal and two assists in eight games since a small setback sidelined him for another two weeks speaks to how much he’s been struggling of late.
"I just gotta work hard on my game," Galchenyuk said. But as he also noted, "adjustments take time."
With the Atlantic Division standings tightening by the day, time is of the essence for Julien to break through to his young pupil.