Trading Galchenyuk: An Inevitable Mistake

Admitting mistakes can be hard. Errors are part of life, of course. Owning up to them can be difficult when you are stressed, lack confidence, or are unsure of yourself. Last weekend, like exhausted parents giving up on a punishment that never made any sense, Galchenyuk was finally moved off the fourth line.

Playing with less skilled players for fewer minutes a game, he had been averaging just 1.7 shots per game. Surprising no one, when placed on the top line he had five shots over 18:43 of ice time. In Winnipeg, he contributed on the score sheet and looked dangerous all game. He drew a penalty and assisted on Max Pacioretty’s power-play game-winner in OT.

Will this put an end to the near constant trade rumors? Probably not.

Alex Galchenyuk: A History of Misuse

As most fans recall, Galchenyuk was Marc Bergevin’s first pick as general manager. He was explicitly drafted as the number one center the Canadiens had been looking for. Unfortunately, his player development has been uneven at best.

Unlike Artturi Lehkonen who spent some time with the Frolunda Hockey Club in Sweden before coming to the NHL, Galchenyuk made the roster mere months after being drafted. Instead of developing his skills, growing in confidence, and finding his game, he was asked to immediately play in the NHL. This was a mistake. Under Michel Therrien, he had few regular linemates, had to adjust to widely inconsistent ice time, and spent three years on the wing before being put back in the middle.

Montreal Canadiens
(Eric Bolte-US PRESSWIRE)

Last year, Galchenyuk started at the center position, was moved to the wing, and then put back at center during the playoffs. He has been criticized for a lack of effort, defensive liabilities, and off-ice controversy. This near constant tough love approach (minus the love part) has continued this year.

This may be in part due to the demands of head coach Claude Julien’s defensive system. His approach has resulted in the most goals scored against the team in decades but Galchenyuk has again been singled out for his defensive failings.

Player Performance

During the 2015-16 season, Galchenyuk centered the Habs’ top line and finished with 30 goals and 26 assists. Last year, he built on that success scoring 23 points in the first 24 games of the season. Then he got injured, was shuffled from center to the wing and back again. While his season was shortened by injury, he still produced 17 goals, 27 assists, with an average ice time of just 15:56.

This season Galchenyuk has averaged 14:52 of ice time, mostly on the bottom two lines. In the Canadiens’ first eight games, he tallied one goal in a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now, in three of their last six games, Galchenyuk has netted three goals. His four goals and two assists are impressive because, during Galchenyuk’s recent scoring surge, he has averaged just 12:43 of ice time per game.

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To Center or Not to Center?

There is no greater divide in hockey than those who rely exclusively on analytics and those who adhere to the eye test. On one the hand, the advanced analytics adherents suggest relying on possession statistics that demonstrate who has the puck and which teams or players drive the play. Based on the numbers, there is little doubt that the Habs are better when he plays center.

According to Marc Dumont, the stats are clear. Overall, when Galchenyuk plays center, he scores more points, the Habs score more goals and they create more scoring chances. During the incredible win streak to start the season last year (ah memories), he scored nearly a point a game for the first third of the season. At center, he scored, he set up, and he smiled.

On the other hand, the old guard holds that quantifying events on the ice ignores the intangibles associated with the speed of the game and its inherent unpredictability. Moreover, stats rarely tell you whether players are lining up correctly or making good decisions in their own end. Instead, the so-called eye test matters.

This means his value as a center is degraded whenever his mental lapses result in defensive liabilities. This means Galchenyuk is not the number one center he was touted to be. It means he cannot be matched against the opposing team’s top lines. Moreover, it means some crafty coaches will try and exploit matchups to take advantage of his perceived weakness as a 200-foot player.

Trading Galchenyuk Would be a Mistake

The rumors surrounding Galchenyuk have been swirling for months and did not abate after he started this season with a new three-year contract. He remains the Canadiens’ best offensive threat. He had 44 points last year despite being injured and has scored four goals this season despite being relegated to the fourth line. It would be a huge mistake to trade him. Unfortunately, it is still likely to happen.

Galchenyuk is a high skill player. He possesses the scoring ability and playmaking creativity which is lacking in Montreal. Despite scoring a number of goals in recent weeks, the Habs have historically struggled to put the puck in the net. It remains one of the most pressing and persistent concerns for the team. Trading a young player with the potential to be an elite scorer would be a huge error unless you could acquire someone of similar value. What sort of value?

Alex Galchenyuk
(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Complications and Controversy

An acceptable trade could involve packaging him as part of a deal for a more established center, or a for a top-pairing left defenseman. Given the history of misuse, however, his value is low. The Canadiens are unlikely to get near the return that Galchenyuk is worth.

In any case, the reality is, few top centers or puck-moving defensemen are available. There are even fewer following the Matt Duchene trade this week. Most winning teams build around strength down the middle and fast, smart puck- moving defensemen. Habs management, on the other hand, decimated their blue line in the offseason and have been unable to develop or acquire the depth needed at center.

If you won’t use Galchenyuk in ways that will allow him to succeed, your best option is to trade him. The Habs are deep on the wing, and despite performing very well at center, Galchenyuk is unlikely to play there. Complicating matters, in an unusual development, former Canadiens player and coach Mario Tremblay said in a radio interview that Galchenyuk has twice been to rehab for substance abuse issues. Habs GM Marc Bergevin, when asked about Tremblay’s claim, said that sort of information is “strictly confidential.” Trading a player under the cloud of a substance abuse allegation seems likely to halt negotiations. In the short term, at least a trade may be unlikely.

Why a Galchenyuk Trade is Still Likely

Ultimately, it feels like a trade is just a matter of time. Galchenyuk is one of three players behind goaltender Carey Price and Max Pacioretty who are valuable. Price, despite recent evidence to the contrary, is an elite goaltender. Pacioretty is an elite scorer and is playing with a favorable contract. He is due for a raise. Trading him could fetch significant returns. However, since trading Price or Pacioretty seems unlikely, Galchenyuk is next up who can bring the most in return.

Beyond value, another reason to move Galchenyuk is that he doesn’t fit into whatever system the coach and the GM seem to envision for the Canadiens. The trouble, of course, is that the vision seems pretty cloudy. This is a team that is supposed to be defensively sound and designed to win 2-1 hockey games. How’s that working out for them 20 games into the season? Unless the team accepts that goals win games in the modern NHL, any player who cannot adapt defensively is unlikely to be successful in Montreal.

Character or Whatever

As Brianne Spiker points out, Bergevin is obsessed with character, even if he won’t define what it means. Apparently It’s the opposite of what Galchenyuk brings. Last year, in a bizarre post-season press conference, Bergevin went out of his way to suggest he was disappointed by Galchenyuk’s performance. Last month, Bergevin stated this about Galchenyuk:

Yes [there is frustration with him] because you see the talent,” said Bergevin. “You see what he’s capable of doing, and again, I’m watching Alex and I hope what happened last night [scoring a goal against Florida and playing well] is the beginning. Sometimes I see a young player that’s looking for answers. He’s not coming to us. But he’s looking somewhere else for answers instead of taking it upon himself. When you stop and you talk to kid about it, he understands. So he’s aware of it. But sometimes it’s tougher than just saying. He needs to find the little things that make him score. Not thinking about scoring, but the process: how am I going to score? What do I have to do?

Stop Digging

If the organization is not happy with Galchenyuk and can’t find a way to support him, one hopes they move him. This would be bad for the team but good for the player. Whether it’s his play, his attitude, his character or some other reason, this team seems unable to acknowledge their own role in his development.

Beyond demoting him to the fourth line, they seem out of options. Singling him out for a lack of effort and bouncing him throughout the lineup further undermines his development. It can’t be good for the young man’s confidence.

The biggest reason that a trade is likely, is that the alternative is to admit that the organization’s approach toward his development is a failure. To paraphrase Will Rogers: The first law of being stuck in a hole is to stop digging. Since admitting an error seems hard for this GM and for the team, playing for time and waiting for a suitable (if not ideal) trade opportunity is the most likely outcome.

It would be a mistake. It wouldn’t be Bergevin’s first with Galchenyuk. When he is traded, it will cap off a history of player mismanagement and poor development. Trading Galchenyuk would be an inevitable and lamentable mistake but it is likely to happen.