Here is a special guest blog post from erudite Habs watcher (and old pal) David Winch:
by David Winch
Special to Top Shelf
The Galchenyuk moment is here: Where is he headed, and what kind of player will he be?
These are exciting questions for Canadiens fans in the third season of top draft pick Alex Galchenyuk’s career. After scoring 89 points over 158 career games – about the same 0.56 points/game pace as in his rookie season – Galchenyuk is now on pace for a 55-point campaign in 2014-15. These modest but promising scoring totals are overshadowed by his play — sensational pinpoint passes and perfect, scorer’s-touch finishes:
Fan expectations have, accordingly, been sky-high: “Galchenyuk … possesses a unique combination of size, skating, high-end skill, and leadership that makes him the type of player every NHL team covets at center.” (HockeysFuture.com, fall 2013). Online posters enthuse: “He’s got a lot more ‘dipsy doodle’ in his game than [Stéphane] Richer ever did. … Sky is the limit for this kid. I think he’s ready to hit 70 points this season … At his peak, he’s at least a PPG player who can dominate the puck.” Eager to jump ahead in the expectations race, the usually sober Eyes on the Prize site told readers back in 2013 that Galchenyuk was “ahead of [Tyler] Seguin’s development curve.” Adding: “Does this mean that Galchenyuk is going to explode into a 30-goal and 60+ point player next season [i.e. in 2013-14]?”
Breathless anticipation is tempered by the proviso “he’s only 20”. Young players often need time. Even fabulous No. 1 draft pick Guy Lafleur took years to fully emerge. In his third full season, as he fell to just 21 goals over 73 games, there were pointed questions around the Forum about Lafleur’s can’t-miss status. –How good will he be?
Similarly today, how clearly can we picture Galchenyuk’s future with the Canadiens?
Galchenyuk is a big, rangy skater whose long strides make him capable of sudden shifts in speed. He looks slightly top-heavy, with the top and bottom halves of his body somehow moving at different velocities as he pivots. His long limbs give him both a delicate touch with the puck and a powerful shot, which elicits gasps. Galchenyuk matches several NHL player styles. Some observers evoke versatile, high-scoring forwards like Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash or Mark Recchi, others the deceptively fast, big-guy styles of a Bobby Smith, Joe Thornton or even Phil Esposito.
As one HockeysFuture analyst writes, “Galchenyuk has excellent offensive skills, vision, hockey sense, character along with a deep desire and commitment to be the NHL’s best player. He has high-end offensive talent to go along with a strong work ethic and a willingness to pay attention to the defensive side of the game. The big centre needs to improve his first-step acceleration, strength, physicality and defensive zone positioning to be successful centre at the NHL level. His potential is a franchise player and possibly an elite star in the NHL.” –Yowza.
Imagine that future
But today Galchenyuk remains a big Rorschach blot, onto which fans project their dreams and hopes. Let’s try to sketch out this blurry future. After all, the Canadiens have seen players like this before. Does this description sound familiar? …. “With a long-legged, deceptively quick stride and superior puck-handling skills, he had no difficulty proving his rightful place on the big stage. [His scoring and physical approach] were indicative of his versatility. [He] could be a smooth-skating, playmaking center or he could drop the gloves for a bout”, notes one player profile at Canadiens.com.
In fact, the player portrayed above had *lots* of trouble proving he belonged in the league. Peter Mahovlich bounced up and down for four seasons between NHL Detroit and the minors before being traded to Montreal in 1969. Once with the Canadiens, he again spent 31 games in the AHL, before finally being called up. He scored 17 points in his 36 games (0.47 pts/game) with the Habs in 1970. He was 22.
A player with many of Galchenyuk’s qualities, Pete, the 6-foot-5 “Little M”, quickly rose to being almost a point-a-game performer for the rest of his career. A reliable goal-scorer and sturdy playmaker, over his nine seasons with the Habs (1969-1978) Mahovlich scored 223 goals. In his core seasons (1970-1977) when he played about 78 games a year, he netted an average of 35 goals a year.
Then there was his flash. Some of Pete’s helter-skelter rushes (here with Team Canada in 1972) are Web legends, rivalling any Rick Nash gem:
Compare these Mahovlich moves with the Galchenyuk highlight reel above: absolute assurance with his hands, a sudden burst toward the net, then he brazenly outguesses the overmatched goalie to score. (“Peter had a helluva reach”, said coach Scotty Bowman.) Then, like Galchenyuk, Pete beams unreservedly, as if it’s all some divine surprise to him.
In Mahovlich’s biggest seasons, between 1974 and 1976, he shattered the 100-point barrier twice on the Habs’ legendary big line, often skating at centre between Lafleur and Steve Shutt. Dishing the puck to 60-goal scorers was ideally suited to his adventurous style: his 82 assists remain a Canadiens team record for a single season. You read that right: not Lafleur or Jean Beliveau, Peter Mahovlich. And the 117 points he scored in 1974-75 trail only Guy Lafleur’s gaudy season totals. Revealingly, he was also a leader in short-handed goals (17), a stat which, like triples in baseball, is synonymous with excitement.
Unfortunately, Mahovlich lost his scoring altitude after 1977 and was traded, quickly falling to an annual 65 points or so. Over his NHL career, he still averaged 0.87 points per game, but Pete’s peak years included just 3-4 top seasons. By comparison, strong skaters and stickhandlers like Mark Recchi (0.92 pts./game) or Brendan Shanahan (0.89) had similar averages, but over longer careers. And his image as a mischievous fool (he once got into a reckless brawl with a Habs roommate at their hotel, causing him 23 stitches) didn’t help. It put off some fans. His achievements were eclipsed. This prompted chronicler Red Fisher to label Mahovlich “the most underrated” Montreal Canadien of all-time.
By contrast, the young Galchenyuk is certainly not underrated. Everything is still expected of him: fans are holding their breath. They can dream Hab dreams, but only his on-ice performance will fill in the blanks.
— Drop the puck, already! We all want to see how this drama turns out.
David Winch is a Montreal-based writer and editor. He last contributed to Top Shelf in April 2014 with an account of Frank Mahovlich vs. the ’71 Bruins: https://topshelfwithbk.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/david-winch-takes-another-look-at-the-famed-71-bruins-habs-series-the-big-m-bruins-killer/