Why Alex Galchenyuk is the 50th most important NHL player

A behind-the-scenes look at Sportsnet magazine's Top 50 Most Important Players issue, available on print and digital newsstands now.

Last spring, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin candidly admitted that he believed Alex Galchenyuk might never play centre in the NHL. Galchenyuk had been a pivot coming up through minor hockey and major junior, that’s the position where he felt most comfortable. The team had projected Galchenyuk to be a potential franchise player down the middle when selecting him third overall in the 2012 draft. He had been drafted that high because he showed precocious passing ability, vision and savvy with Sarnia in the Ontario Hockey League.

Three years later, though, the GM’s critical assessment didn’t bode well for Galchenyuk’s future with the club. Whether or not it was intended to be dismissive, it had to sound that way to the 21-year-old. If you read between the lines, you could come away with a sense that Bergevin was saying: “Galchenyuk might play centre one day—but it won’t be with us.”

Recently, however, Bergevin has stated categorically that Galchenyuk will play the middle for the Canadiens this season and hinted he’ll be entrenched there for years to come. Bergevin’s change of heart came after an off-season tête-à-tête with coach Michel Therrien, who pleaded Galchenyuk’s case. Not that Galchenyuk will be the face of Les Habitants anytime soon—P.K. Subban and Carey Price aren’t going anywhere. Still, Therrien envisions him as an offensive catalyst, the playmaker Max Pacioretty needs and a two-way forward who can handle first-line minutes in the playoff crucible.

Of course, when Galchenyuk joined the Canadiens back in January 2013, after the lockout, he was a wonder.

Fresh off the U.S. victory at the world juniors, 15 months removed from surgery for a torn ACL, Galchenyuk stepped directly into the Montreal lineup and had a season that shouldn’t be expected of any teenager: He played all 48 games, mostly as a third-line left winger, racked up nine goals and 18 assists and was an impressive plus-13 for a Canadiens team that finished second in the Eastern Conference.

If you had said at the end of that rookie half-year that Galchenyuk would be a franchise centre three or four seasons down the line, it would have been wishful but not far-fetched. He looked like that rarest and most valued commodity: a player who would win games for you while still on his entry-level contract. Those were sunny days.

After the Canadiens’ elimination this spring, with his entry deal winding down, Galchenyuk heard his GM’s stinging criticism. He had been tried at centre for a short spell in mid-season, had a few highlight moments (including his first career hat trick) and showed some chemistry with Pacioretty. But the experiment was abruptly halted, and Galchenyuk wound up with 20 goals in 80 games mostly playing the wing.

This season, he’ll be back in the middle in part because of his still-emerging talent and in at least equal part because the Canadiens have gone about as far as they reasonably can riding Tomas Plekanec as a first-line centre. Plekanec is not without virtues, but he’ll turn 33 early this season and has reached the 70-point mark only once in his career. Teams don’t win Stanley Cups with a player in his mould as a first-line centre. Some do with the player that the Canadiens hope Galchenyuk might be.

Bergevin’s about-face on Galchenyuk was also a telling commentary on the prospects of others on the depth chart. Good news for Galchenyuk means that he has passed Lars Eller and David Desharnais, one of whom will have to move to the wing. The Canadiens have abundant talent at every position, and proven veterans. In the middle of the mix, though, is Galchenyuk, who has a lot to prove and an opportunity that so nearly passed him by in Montreal.

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