NHL Preview: Galchenyuk next big thing for Habs?

Alex Galchenyuk (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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There was a priceless moment from Alex Galchenyuk’s first NHL training camp where the kid showed just how quickly he can go from smooth to stiff.

During a shootout competition, Galchenyuk scored one of those goals that are more like dunking in the goalie’s face, then dutifully skated back to his place along the boards without in any way indulging the hoots and hollers around him. Along the way, he barely made contact with David Desharnais when he extended a hand and stick in congratulations. Once back in line, Galchenyuk didn’t see Erik Cole’s outstretched glove, leaving the veteran hanging for a good five seconds before breaking his all-business state to reciprocate the love with a tap and a grin.

That all occurred just last January, when it was unclear whether Galchenyuk — the third overall pick in the 2012 draft — would crack the Habs lineup, let alone stick for the entire year. Now, as Galchenyuk enters his sophomore season, he’s emerging as a player the Canadiens are counting on to round out a trio of stars, while filling a void at forward that’s essentially existed since the glory days of Guy Lafleur.

The off-season saw Montreal add 36-year-old Danny Brière — its most high-profile francophone skater in some time — along with tough guy George Parros and big defenceman Douglas Murray. None of those players will do a lot to change the fact that, after a surprise division win last year, the Canadiens will likely be slugging it out just to earn a playoff berth this season. However, if Carey Price is the goalie the Canadiens believe him to be and P.K. Subban’s Norris Trophy last year is an accurate indication of where his career is going, the Habs have foundational pieces in the crease and on the blueline.

To complete the picture, Montreal needs a forward who puts the opposition on high alert every time he hits the ice. That’s what Galchenyuk, with his six-foot-one frame and nimble hands, can be. It might be asking a bit much of the 19-year-old Galchenyuk to elevate to stud status this season, but his rookie campaign offered promise on a number of fronts. There were flashes of brilliance, times when he would weave through a forest of sticks and legs and fire a shot that screamed high-end draft pick. But what should really be heartening for Habs fans is what happened between those moments. Though he produced a humble 27 points in 48 games while seeing limited third-line action, Galchenyuk — who started his NHL career on the wing but figures to move to centre eventually — entered the fight every time he was on the ice, never looked content to ride his talent and did what he could as a teenager on the defensive end.

His strong showing earned Galchenyuk — who was born in Wisconsin to Russian parents — an invite to Team USA’s Olympic orientation camp in August, where he was the youngest forward in attendance. That all bodes well for a franchise that hasn’t had a consistent game-changing forward since Lafleur was tearing up the league in the late 1970s. In fact, in the past 33 years, the Canadiens have placed just one player — Mats Naslund in 1985–86 — amongst the league’s top-10 scorers.

As for the current crop of forwards, Tomas Plekanec is a crafty two-way guy, Max Pacioretty has size and scoring ability, and Calder Trophy finalist Brendan Gallagher is as scrappy as they come, but none of those players are the epicentre of an attack. With a little more seasoning, that’s exactly what Galchenyuk can become. At that point, it will be tough for anybody in Montreal to suppress a smile.

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