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Alex Galchenyuk: Can he live down his past in the biggest fishbowl hockey has?

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If he became a classic “problem player” in Montreal, is Toronto the place for redemption?

2012 NHL Entry Draft - Round One Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

When the Leafs traded for Alex Galchenyuk, they did something they likely should have done in October. The Senators got there first, but at 27, he’s younger than Zach Bogosian, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton, but he has a few things in common with some of those players, including a salary of the buriable amount of $1,050,000 for this season. The Senators were an odd choice for a player whose claim to fame is offence, and the Leafs seem like a better gamble for him. But what of the dice roll Kyle Dubas is making? First, let’s really get to know Galchenyuk.

History

Alex Galchenyuk is an American, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it’s hard not to wonder who he’d be today if he’d grown up playing American hockey his whole life. He was there at all because his father, Alexander Galchenyuk, was an itinerant hockey pro, who had aged out of the Soviet league where he’d been playing for Dynamo Moscow. He wasn’t really good enough for that precursor to the KHL, so he headed off to find pro jobs in America, then Germany, then Russia again, then Italy, Switzerland and finally Belarus, where he was born.

If that reminds you of the strange life of Leo Komarov, neither Finn nor Russian, and some of both, the similarities are marked. The main difference is Alex Galchenyuk never played in Russia. He began in Switzerland as a child and then moved back to America where he lit up a Chicago high school team at age 15. He had 33 more points than his closest competitor in a 38-game season, and that was more than enough to interest the OHL. He was drafted first overall.

Galchenyuk joined the Sarnia Sting in 2010 and commenced lighting up another league. He had some help in the form of teammate Nail Yakupov who had an team-leading 101 points to Galchenyuk’s more tepid 83. OHL points always look so amazing, but age matters in a league that runs from 16 to 21. Galchenyuk finished 33rd in the league in points per game in his rookie year, but easily led the field for players under 17. Sean Monahan was second to him in the U17 group, and he had only 47 points.

At 17 the next fall, Galchenyuk injured his knee in a pre-season OHL game and had surgery for a torn ACL. He ultimately played in two games and one playoff round in the season that was supposed to set the table for the draft that summer.

The Draft Year

In 2012, with only the pre-injury years to go by, the Montreal Canadiens drafted him third overall. If he’d had a second year on the Sting, where Yakupov had cooled off and the points weren’t so easy to get, would he have gone so high in the draft? Another life he didn’t lead is the one where expectations were a little lower at the start. But all of the expectations were that he was a skilled forward with that coveted extra attribute of size.

His third OHL year in 2012-2013 was a good one, though. He was the team captain, a popular player with the fans and with only 33 games played, he led the league in points per game over Ryan Strome and Mark Scheifele.

The Americans noticed him — hard to accomplish when people think you’re Russian and you play in Canada — and put him on the WJC team. He had eight points in seven games at the WJC and won a gold medal. The Americans liked him so much, he played on the World Championship team in 2012 and got the bronze. Auston Matthews also made Team USA at 19 a few years later.

The Canadiens noticed him. In the shortened season post-draft, and between winning the WJC gold and the World bonze, he played in the NHL, scored 13 goals in 65 games, and generally seemed like a great prospect. He was all offence, defence optional, but who isn’t at that age? The only difference between his debut season and Matthews’ is that Matthews played top line out of the gate, and Galchenyuk was held in the second-third line limbo of a player not yet trusted. Matthews was a power play master immediately. Glachenyuk was good, just not quite Matthews great.

The 2012 draft is rightly held up as one of the weakest and also weirdest drafts in the modern era. Maybe it was the looming lockout that addled minds, but that is a lot of early first round busts and gentle disappointments:

  1. Nail Yakupov
  2. Ryan Murray
  3. Alex Galchenyuk
  4. Griffin Reinhart
  5. Morgan Rielly
  6. Hampus Lindholm
  7. Matt Dumba
  8. Derrick Pouliot
  9. Jacob Trouba
  10. Slater Koekkoek

Maybe it’s all the defencemen, or maybe all the defencemen are there because the forwards were just not very good. What if I told you Galchenyuk has the second most points of anyone drafted that year? Only Filip Forsberg is ahead of him. He hasn’t been a bust, and if he’s a disappointment, it’s not gentle. Whatever went wrong, it wasn’t his teenage injury and surgery.

NHL Career

He progressed exactly like you’d expect. He struggled a bit in his first full season, then he got things figured out, and in 2015-2016, while the Leafs were very busy being very bad and we were dreaming of Auston, Galchenyuk had his famous 30-goal season. Before that — and after — he was more of a 20 goal scorer and a solid top-sixer who was always bad at defence.

He’s Matthews size, or near about, and absent Matthews’ amazing shot to pay his way, he was always asked why he wasn’t more committed to the Protestant Work Ethic golden ideal of the 200 ft game. At the risk of narrativizing to my own biases — when the questions about his defence got really loud is when his offence dried up like ice in the sunshine.

Montreal was not exactly good during this time. They only had 82 points in 2015-2016, running on a core of good offensive players and a coach in Michel Therrien who was the exact negative image of Claude Julien today. They had the same sort of 50-50 Corsi as the Leafs that year (tanking, remember) that was a little worse by Expected Goals and below 50% in Goals For.

And then what happened? The Leafs stopped tanking, made the playoffs, and the Canadiens had one of those seasons where everything went right. Until they lost in the first round and Alexander Radulov was really the only forward who looked worth keeping.

Before we leave the Therrien years behind, I need to admit to watching the Habs a lot in those days. And it was clear that Galchenyuk was not a favourite of the coach. He played one part season with fellow problem child Alex Semin where they laid down this epic Corsi while never scoring that was exactly the sort of thing that makes a coach yank out his hair. You’re there! In the zone! And you shoot from the outer suburbs, and you’re this hulking man with enough beef to make every defender a little worried, or at least enough to drive to the net once a year, and yeah — I never liked Therrien, but his frustration was valid. A line of coaches since then have had the same frustrations.

The next season Therrien tried Galchenyuk with Radulov, and the narrative there was that the older, wiser, former wild man (and Russian, everyone figured he needed a Russian father figure) would teach Galchenyuk how to Play Right™. It doesn’t seem to have worked. Once Claude Julien joined the team, Galchenyuk was on borrowed time, and they had nothing to say to each other. I don’t think a player like Galchenyuk has any idea what Julien’s system is meant to do.

Pictures of Success and Failure

Time to visualize this. Goals are so mercurial, and if you all you do is shout “30-goal season”, you conjure up an image of a player a cut above who Galchenyuk ever was, and if you just talk about “enigmatic” and inconsistent, you miss the years of excellence. He wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

The following charts are GAR-based, so they include some individual shooting luck, but they tell a reasonable story, I think.

Imagine a zippy little winger with a profile like that, and you’d be thinking that it’s fine. Offence! It’s how you win! But for Galchenyuk, ostensibly a centre, and with the physical shape to raise expectations about defence (as if that’s not in the brain), he disappointed even in this period when he was very good at offence. He’s not very different to Johnny Gaudreau in how he made an impact, but expectations were always for some other sort of path to that final result.

Post-Montreal (and in his Julien year), he looked like this:

Gambling on the Future

Wayne Simmonds has a chart covering the same three years that is exactly as bad as that, though. And while the causes aren’t as clear for Galchenyuk as they are with Simmonds, the result is the same. Galchenyuk is younger, so the gamble for him and the Leafs seems less of a long shot. And Simmonds hasn’t entirely lived up to his contract, not yet. He’s been better than his most recent seasons, but he hasn’t touched his past ability.

That’s where we should start now that we aren’t just delving into the history of a player, but looking at someone the Maple Leafs have acquired.

The gamble with Galchenyuk, if it can even by called that, is the same as the one for Simmonds. The Leafs need a winger who can at least play the third line, and top six would be better, and they need him to be cheap. Galchenyuk’s performance on the Senators was very like his career of shooting from too far away, failing to drive the net, while having no idea at all how to play defensively. But for all of that, he was measurably better than Pierre Engvall and Jimmy Vesey. And the tantalizing memory of the long years when his offence was really good still lingers.

The worst that can happen on this Dubas role of the dice can’t even be called bad. The Leafs waited until Galchenyuk had cleared waivers to trade for him, and that means he can work with the training staff, get to know the systems, the coaches, and as part of the Taxi Squad, he can be at practices. He can be put in a game at an opportune moment. There is no hurry here, and yet, the 13 mark of the season is coming up fast, so there isn’t all the time in the world, either.

The worst that can happen is that he fails to clear the bar of out-playing Jimmy Vesey or Alex Barabanov. And then he can be sent back to either the Taxi Squad or the AHL and it’s like he was never there. There is nothing to lose here, beyond the player traded for him.

The best case scenario is not that he magically turns into a player who looks like a legit top 10 draft pick. That baggage has to be set aside, by him and by us as fans. He’s not going to be the man he seemed to be then. Neither is Thornton, Simmonds or Bogosian, but they all add value, they all work cheap, and boy did Galchenyuk ever land in a room full of people who can understand him. And no, that doesn’t mean Russians. It means people who can’t ever again meet the expectations they used to set for themselves. They all need to create new limits on what they imagine their lives can be, new goals to strive for. And they get to do that in the glare of the most intense hockey media in the world.

Good luck to them all.