TORONTO -- The plans were set in motion right from the first phone call.
Kyle Dubas told Pat Brisson that the Toronto Maple Leafs intended to help Alex Galchenyuk rebuild his shaken confidence when first they spoke about Brisson’s client coming to Toronto, and everything that’s unfolded in the five weeks since has been done with that in mind.
It has included a healthy dose of 1-on-1 skills development time, like the session Galchenyuk put in with skating coach Randi Milani on Monday morning. There was a six-game stint in the American Hockey League where he was given the chance to play huge minutes. And when Galchenyuk finally stepped into the Leafs lineup for a back-to-back against Calgary over the weekend, he did so alongside John Tavares and William Nylander.
Sheldon Keefe is notorious for his line juggling, but he stuck with that trio even after they were scored on twice in three shifts to begin Friday’s game. And he acknowledged the role he needs to play in helping create the conditions where Galchenyuk can thrive.
“You know I think we recognize there’s more to this player here in terms of what he has to offer,” said Keefe. “I think the first thing is give him a chance to play with good players.”
Viewed from 10,000 feet, it’s an undeniably sensible approach to dealing with an asset that carries asymmetrical upside. Galchenyuk was acquired for a negligible cost (the Leafs actually freed up a contract slot by sending Egor Korshkov and David Warsofsky to Carolina for him) and could conceivably become a cap-friendly contributor if able to regain only a fraction of his previous form.
Brisson says Galchenyuk endured an emotional toll while bouncing from Arizona to Pittsburgh to Minnesota last season. Then he signed in Ottawa as a free agent, started this year as a healthy scratch, and spent all of 48 hours on the Hurricanes' roster as a salary throw-in to a trade before getting flipped to the Leafs.
It’s certainly possible that each of those organizations made the right call by moving on from a former third-overall pick who has battled injuries and had his hockey sense questioned. Where Toronto veered from industry convention was deciding to step back and show patience rather than trading for him on a Monday, throwing him in the lineup on a Wednesday and starting to make immediate judgments.
In a typical year, things may not have played out this way. The Leafs jumped at the chance to trade for Galchenyuk in part because he was already in Canada and didn’t need a 14-day quarantine like a player arriving from the U.S. would.
“It was just really convenient that we could have him drive from Ottawa, test a couple times and be a part of our group,” said Dubas. ”He was obviously a player that had a great stretch in his early 20’s and has now bounced around for a few teams. So what we wanted to do was stabilize him, get him working with our development staff and then get him in and rolling with games with the Marlies.
“It was just really fortunate how it all worked out.”
The Leafs forever need to mine for useful depth to augment their highly-paid core, as evidenced by Vancouver’s waiver claims on Travis Boyd and Jimmy Vesey over the last week. And the loss of two replacement-level forwards only makes Galchenyuk more important to the organization.
He’s impressed with his attitude and willingness to get to work, with Keefe noting that many players in Galchenyuk’s situation wouldn’t have accepted their first-ever AHL assignment so gracefully.
“It’s a credit to how motivated he is to get this right,” said Keefe.
Galchenyuk’s first two games with the Leafs were high on effort. He skated well and got in on the forecheck and won some puck battles. The Leafs only need him to be a complimentary scorer in a forward group that now features seven top-10 draft picks and there was a small hint of promise to be found against the Flames.
He also seems to be carving out a niche with his new teammates.
“He’s a great guy,” said Nylander, who had a chance meeting with Galchenyuk when he was down playing for the Marlies. “I was out for a walk and I mean we were talking for an hour. I never really met the guy, very nice guy.
“And obviously wants to be here and works really hard out there.”
Where this goes is still very much to be determined, but how it’s gone so far is unusual in a league where teams typically apply a “survival of the fittest” approach to decision-making.
For now, the Leafs are intent on providing Galchenyuk with every chance to wipe his own slate clean after pinballing through six organizations in two years.
“I feel very comfortable here in Toronto,” said Galchenyuk. “I give a lot of credit to the organization for the time they put in to work on me and get my game back where it needs to be. It’s amazing.
“I reaIly appreciate it and I’ve just got to keep sticking to it and do my best.”
There could be a nice payoff for their patience.