MONTREAL — It will be the lasting image of Brendan Gallagher as a Montreal Canadien: gums flapping and bleeding all at once, his wide smile belying a burning rage.
That was how we saw him prior to his season’s abrupt conclusion, with a Matt Niskanen cross-check having broken his jaw. The hit left him leaking blood — and tongue-twisting vitriol — from his mouth, but he picked himself up and helped the Canadiens close out a season-saving Game 5 win in their Stanley Cup Playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Because that’s Gallagher — battered, but never beaten. It’s how we’ll always think of the five-foot-nine, 184-pound winger.
You have to think that’s how the Canadiens see him, too. As an indomitable player who will spend five minutes yapping with a freshly-broken jaw, or one who will scratch and claw through an entire playoff run with a tear in his hip, like he did in August to help Montreal pull off a stunning upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins before falling short of doing the same to the Flyers.
Shocking absolutely no one, Gallagher said, during a season-ending conference call Monday, he’d have returned to play with Montreal post-jaw surgery had they advanced to the second round.
That’s the kind of player he is. The player who associate coach Kirk Muller recently referred to as the Canadiens’ “heartbeat.” The kind of player every team wants.
So… about that contract situation.
Gallagher’s entering the final season of one of the best value deals in the NHL — a six-year, $22.5 million contract — and he’s due a significant raise. He’s topped 30 goals twice and averaged .64 points per game since the beginning of the 2015-16 season. And he’ll be 29 in May.
If you’re looking for a comparable, New York’s Chris Kreider is an easy one. He’s not the only one, but he’s an easy one.
In February, in the middle of the final season of a four-year contract worth $18.5 million, Kreider signed a seven-year, $45.5-million extension that came with a no-movement clause which will change to a 15-team no-trade clause in 2024. He’s never topped 30 goals, but he’s scored at least 20 in four of the five seasons he’s played since 2015.
Kreider’s average points per game with the Rangers since then is .65.
Even with a global pandemic significantly altering the financial landscape of the NHL for the foreseeable future — and not for the better — Gallagher is likely to get paid similarly. And he’d like to be paid by the Canadiens.
They’re a team Gallagher believes he can win with, and he said nothing is more important to him than that.
“For me, it’s pretty much everything,” Gallagher started. “The money’s important. I’m not going to sit here and lie and say it’s not going to be important to me. But it’ll be enough money regardless of what it is. I’ll be able to live a happy life post-hockey and that’s not going to be a worry. I want to enjoy my time and I want to enjoy my experience and I want to have an opportunity to be a winner. And that’s really what you want to be remembered for. So, going into this next contract, however many years I’m able to sign for, you just want to be in a position where you have that opportunity each and every season.”
It’s impossible to imagine he’d have felt the Canadiens would have given him that opportunity after a disappointing regular season that saw them finish near the bottom of the standings.
But what Gallagher saw from his team in 10 August games changed that.
“There’s so many positive signs,” the Edmonton native said. “I talked about (Carey Price), but you can’t forget the importance of (Shea Weber) back there (on the blue line). You look at the young centremen with (Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi) — Suzie really took it on himself. I think if you look back at even his junior, he’s a guy who really enjoys those big moments and scoring big goals at big times, and that’s really a characteristic that you can’t teach in a player; they either have it or they don’t. So, anyone who can step up, that’s someone you want on your team.
“And with KK, you still gotta remember how young he is. He played at 18. He’s going into his third season, but he’s a 20-year-old kid. You can see the strides that he’s making, and you look back at your own development — me, at that age, I was just turning pro — he’s already got two years under his belt and he’s understood definitely the growing pains, definitely the areas of his game that he needed to mature at. But you can see the raw talent and the raw ability. And then in the playoffs he was able to use some of the lessons that he learned down in the AHL, and he came and he was such an important player for us. And those are things that when you’re thinking about long term and the strides that these players are going to be able to make, it definitely affects your decision making and it’s a positive sign for sure.”
There are several others anchoring Gallagher to Montreal. From the chemistry he has with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar — two players also due contracts in 2021 — to the confidence he has in the style of game the Canadiens committed themselves to in the playoffs.
And though things were a bit rocky for him, with his only goal coming in his final game, the Canadiens know they can count on him moving forward.
It helps that Gallagher is healing well from his jaw surgery and been assured he won’t require a procedure for his hip. He said he’s a week or two away from beginning his off-season training, and that he’s expecting to make a full recovery from both injuries.
As for contract talks, Gallagher’s hoping they’ll take on a serious tone over the coming weeks.
“(Agent) Gerry (Johansson) and the team have talked, but nothing in detail. Obviously those conversations are going to happen, and I think both sides are very open to it,” Gallagher said. “But, for me, my job’s to get ready for next season. If that means I have a contract, fantastic. If it means I don’t, my job doesn’t change. My goal is to help this team, next year, be a winner. I’m going to put in the work to do that regardless of the contract situation. As an athlete, I’ve got to do my best to block that out and let those guys… I obviously pay my agent to take care of that stuff and I’m going to let him do his job and the team will take care of whatever’s best for their future interest and they’ll make that decision.”