PITTSBURGH — New city, same old Alex Galchenyuk.
At this stage, in his eighth NHL season, is there really another team out there that expects the 25-year-old to change?
This past summer, the Pittsburgh Penguins dumped Phil Kessel — and his $6.8-million cap hit through 2022 — along with Dane Birks and a fourth-round pick to take back the scoring winger and defence prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph from the Arizona Coyotes because, well, they weren’t just going to drop Kessel without at least trying to get a player back who could somewhat supplant his offence.
Galchenyuk, who had 19 goals and 41 points in 72 games in his one season in Arizona was a decent bet. After all, he’s a player who scored 30 goals and 56 points as a 21-year-old.
But after just a couple months and change in the Steel City, the Penguins are finding out what the Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens (who drafted him third overall in 2012) had already learned: Galchenyuk has the talent to be a top-six forward, but he’s too much of a liability to play in the top six.
He has remarkable hands, an elite shot and decent speed, but he just can’t quite figure out how to play the game the way his coaches want him to — and Mike Sullivan is now the fourth coach at this level who appears perplexed about how to get something more out of him.
"We’re trying to work with him right now to see if we can help him establish his game," Sullivan said on Monday.
Meanwhile, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is working on trading Galchenyuk out of town.
Here’s what one Eastern Conference executive we reached out to on Monday said about that: "Everyone knows what he is. Not sure who will want to acquire him. And more importantly, what will they want to give up to get him knowing all that?"
Galchenyuk’s on an expiring contract that carries a $4.9-million cap hit. Considering what Rutherford told The Athletic’s Josh Yohe late last week, don’t expect teams to be lining up to pay traditional rental prices (first- or second-round picks) ahead of this year’s deadline.
Considering what he said, we’d be surprised if Rutherford was able to deal Galchenyuk without taking back salary or without having to retain some of Galchenyuk’s salary.
"The fact of the matter is, when we’re totally healthy, he’s going to have to work very hard just to get in the top 12," Rutherford said. "That’s just the way it is, because we have a lot of guys playing well. So, that’s the good news and the bad news."
What about moving him up with Evgeni Malkin once Sidney Crosby returns from injury towards the end of December?
"I’m not totally convinced that there’s the right chemistry there," Rutherford told Yohe. "You have to have players that have the chemistry, the right fit. I never felt that that was going to be a place for him."
If the kid with a great shot and great hands isn’t a fit with one of the most gifted playmakers of all time, who is he a fit with?
Galchenyuk, who has a respectable two goals and 10 points in 21 games despite missing most of training camp and nine games in October, is currently lined up on the left side of Pittsburgh’s fourth line with Sam Lafferty and Stefan Noesen. He’s played less than 10 minutes in five of his last six games, but does play the point on Pittsburgh’s second power-play unit.
Given those circumstances, it’s fair to say that Galchenyuk is not just playing for a new contract; he’s playing for a chance to keep his NHL career alive.
"I’m just doing what I can, just showing up to work and trying to work on my game," Galchenyuk told reporters on Monday. "I had a little bit of a tough start, but I’m sticking with it and going out there and trying to help the team as best as I can."
It’s a job that only gets harder considering the way Rutherford openly criticized him, even though Galchenyuk claimed on Monday he hadn’t heard anything about the GM’s comments.
He also said he hasn’t thought about his contract situation and repeated that he is solely focused on the working hard.
The thing is, Galchenyuk’s work ethic isn’t the problem.
"I know Alex, his work ethic is tremendous," Sullivan said, echoing what Rutherford and Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet told Yohe. "He’s a great kid and he cares. He cares about the Penguins and obviously he cares about his own individual playing career."
But Galchenyuk just hasn’t figured it out, and the chances that he’s suddenly going to develop the hockey sense he’s been lacking at this level are negligible.