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An Argument for Montréal Keeping Alex Galchenyuk

Montreal Canadiens

It was a tough year for Alex Galchenyuk. Following up a first-time 30-goal campaign was never going to be easy, but with Phillip Danault not yet proven, Tomas Plekanec on the downside of his career, and a lack of other clear top center options, the Habs needed him to at least come close to repeating the performance.

In the eyes of the coaching staff, he did not.

The first thing that needs to be discussed is his injury. After missing just two games over the previous two seasons, the 23-year-old missed 21 games in 2016-17. It was a knee injury that kept him out from early December until mid-January, and then out of the lineup again after a brief return that saw him reinjure that same knee. We may never know the true extent of the injury, but for a player to essentially miss two months would indicate it wasn’t a small matter.

This is what makes it hard to take his season at face value. Over the previous three years, his shots per 60 minutes at five-on-five, his points per 60 minutes at five-on-five, his points per game, his assists per 60 minutes at five-on-five, and basically every meaningful individual offensive measure increased year over year. Canadiens fans were hoping young center would keep progressing, but this year everything came crashing down. Though, to be fair, he did increase his points per game to a career high 0.72, by the way, along with his assist rate.

So where do things stand?

Arpon Basu of lnh.com got an insightful quote from General Manager Marc Bergevin with regards to a first-line center:

Personally, this is something I think about often. When you look back at Cup champions over the last decade, one common theme is True Number One Center and True Number One Defenseman. I don’t mean “there are 30 first-line centers, so we’ll include Max Domi and Alex Wennberg as first-line centers,” but rather short-hand for the elite tier. Names like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, and Pavel Datsyuk up front, and Kris Letang, Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty, and Nicklas Lidstrom on the blue line. It’s quite remarkable. Perhaps a by-committee defense corps can work, or a glut of low-end first-line/second-line centers, but it hasn’t in terms of winning the Stanley Cup in recent memory.

Galchenyuk hasn’t taken that step yet. In fact, his game has been closer to someone like Matt Duchene than an elite two-way center. The visualizations below are from HockeyViz.com. They show unblocked shots against at five-on-five, with Duchene and Galchenyuk on the ice for their respective teams, and off the ice as well. The red areas mean more shots against, and the blue areas mean less. The darker or lighter the shade, the more or less shot attempts allowed from that area.

HockeyViz

Last year, the Habs and Avalanche were better defensively, in particular from in-close (the dangerous scoring areas) with these two players off the ice.

I think the Duchene comparison is apt here. Here is how he and Galchenyuk measured up offensively at five-on-five, per 60 minutes of play, through their respective Age-22 seasons, with stats from Corsica:

Matt Duchene (2009-2013, 3677.40 minutes) Alex Galchenyuk (2012-2017, 4133.66 minutes)
Points/60 1.96 1.95
Individual scoring chances/60 2.48 2.90
Shots/60 7.70 7.11
Shot attempts/60 13.25 12.82

 

Maybe “Matt Duchene” wasn’t what Canadiens fans had been hoping for out of Galchenyuk, but since the Avalanche center stepped into the league, he had managed at least 55 points in every season he’s played at least 70 games up until this past campaign. He’s not in the elite tier of pivots listed earlier, but he’s not a player to give up on (though Colorado seems destined to trade him for some reason).

Just to make sure that this doesn’t appear to be cherry-picking shots against stats from one season where there was an injury, here are their shot rates against, on and off the ice, from 2015-16:

While the densities change, one thing remains constant: both their respective teams have fared better defensively, at least with regards to shot attempts against from in tight over the last two seasons with them off the ice.

Adding to the difficulty factor here is that yes, of course a 20- and 21-year-old player wasn’t highly successful on the defensive side of the puck. No player is really expected to unless that is the lone reason why they were drafted. But then we have two years of data showing below-average performance defensively, the most recent of which involved a mid-season knee problem.

As alluded to earlier, Galchenyuk’s shot rate cratered this year to 5.53 per 60 minutes. His previous career-low was 6.33 in 2013-14, and last season’s mark was 8.51. There is a myriad of reasons why this could happen. He did manage a four-year high in assists per 60 minutes, so perhaps he was trying to be more a distributor. Perhaps the injury played a factor, and his shots per 60 minutes did drop to 5.3 after December 4th (when he was injured) compared to 6.03 from the start of the season until that point. He still wasn’t at the level we were used to before that issue cropped up, but it did decline afterwards. Independent of the drop in shot rate, at least he was still getting shots from the dangerous areas:

Whatever the cause(s), it’s true that the talented American shot significantly less than he had in previous seasons, so his rate of shots and scoring chances decreased. Those charts show us that the shots he was taking, however, weren’t just wasted shots from outside the face-off dots. He was getting down low to the areas that had made him successful in previous seasons. That is a good sign, at least.

It is at this point where expectations need to be set at a realistic level. That Galchenyuk will eventually become an elite two-way center is uncertain, and I’d wager unlikely. There may be off-ice issues playing some sort of factor, but it is not up to you or I to speculate on such things. There is a lot that we don’t know about these matters, and conjecture is irresponsible. All we can do is watch the games, and review the numbers these games provide us, along with any reports from credible sources.

Galchenyuk may never be that true number one center Montreal has been missing. There have also been conflicting quotes from both Bergevin and Head Coach Claude Julien as to what Galchenyuk’s role will be moving forward. That doesn’t mean he cannot be a very effective, and very useful, offensive player. Anyone watching the 2017 postseason knows that’s the type of player Montréal needs.

Featured Image Credit: By Lisa Gansky from New York, NY, USA (IMG_8395) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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