Back in February, speculation had started to circle around the Toronto Maple Leafs that general manager Kyle Dubas was in the market for a top-six winger to play alongside John Tavares and William Nylander. I wrote a piece around that time on why I believed the Leafs could be in the market for a guy like Los Angeles Kings winger Alex Iafallo.
With the Kings now fighting for a playoff spot, the thought of that seems a little less likely, albeit not out of the picture. A few other names that I considered included the Anaheim Ducks’ Rickard Rakell (who my colleague Peter Baracchini wrote a piece on) and the New Jersey Devils’ Kyle Palmieri. I also floated the idea that the Leafs might take a chance on a reclamation project, someone like the Vancouver Canucks’ Jake Virtanen.
Another name that popped up as a reclamation project was Alex Galchenyuk, who was with the Ottawa Senators at the time. The Senators promptly placed him on waivers, and then when he cleared, traded him to the Carolina Hurricanes along with Cedric Paquette for forward Ryan Dzingel. And then, all of two days later, the Leafs acquired Galchenyuk for Egor Korshkov and David Warsofsky.
I’ll be honest, when the Leafs acquired the former third overall pick, I was skeptical. Galchenyuk was struggling in Ottawa (but then again, who wasn’t?), and only had one point in eight games. Surely this couldn’t have been the top-six winger Elliotte Friedman and all of the other analysts were talking about?
Here we are a month later, and the Leafs have yet to make a trade. Granted, while I don’t think Galchenyuk is going to be the only acquisition the Leafs make this season, I do think that he holds some untapped potential that we may not have seen when they first acquired him.
Easing Him In
When the Leafs pulled the trigger on the trade for Galchenyuk, I thought the cycle would proceed as follows – they would try him out on the fourth line in place of Jimmy Vesey for a few games, he would see limited success, the Leafs would acquire a legitimate upgrade to the top six and he would be flipped once again at the deadline.
But seeing the way the Leafs have handled him since the trade leads me to believe that they might see him as a legitimate contributor to the offense. He had never left Canada between the time when he was traded to Carolina and the time the Leafs acquired him, so there was no quarantine or any other delays. He spent a few days doing 1-on-1 drills with coaches, and then the Leafs assigned him to the AHL.
In six AHL games, he registered eight points while getting reps on the top line alongside Alexander Barabanov and Nic Petan. One thing to note is that this little stint with the Toronto Marlies was the 27-year-old’s first-ever time in the AHL. Once he left the OHL, the Montreal Canadiens brought him into the NHL and that was that. And while he didn’t become the No. 1 centre I’m sure the Habs were hoping for when they drafted him, they did get some pretty productive seasons out of him.
His career season came in 2015-16 when he put up a career-high of 56 points and 30 goals to go with it. After the Habs traded him to Arizona for Max Domi, he put up 41 points in 2018-19 for the Coyotes. Then, he found himself traded once again when the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired him in a package for Phil Kessel. He saw a dip in production, putting up only 17 points in 45 games, and found himself on the move yet again. He was traded to the Minnesota Wild in a package that saw Jason Zucker head back the other way.
The point of that whole recap of his career is that Galchenyuk has always seemed to be a guy people expect at least 20 goals and 40 points out of. Every single team he played for after Montreal seemed to be a “fresh start” and each team hoped that he would become the guy the Habs expected to get when they drafted him.
But the Leafs aren’t in a position where they need him to step in and be “the guy”. They’re more than covered when it comes to help on offense. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nylander, Tavares, the list goes on. And the fact that the Leafs are taking all of this extra time to ensure Galchenyuk gets his confidence back could be setting him up for legitimate success.
In Dubas’ press conference with Sportsnet, he said that Galchenyuk has been “outstanding” in the AHL and that they’ve made a conscious effort to take every step to get him back to a level they know he can produce at. Not all players will respond to a trip to the AHL the way Galchenyuk did, especially somebody in his situation where he was once a high draft pick and expected to be an NHLer until he retired.
But Galchenyuk responded well. He put up over a point-per-game in his conditioning stint and now he appears to be ready to make his Leafs debut. He’s been getting some reps on the top power-play unit and he’s been taking some rushes on the second line with Tavares and Nylander.
We can revisit this article in a month and see if I was onto something or if it ended up being completely irrelevant. But think about it. You go from playing for one of the worst teams in the NHL in limited minutes to playing for one of the best teams in the NHL, in their top six, alongside an established veteran and star in Tavares and one of their most skilled forwards in Nylander, who have 26 and 24 points respectively.
I don’t think the Leafs are expecting the Wisconsin native to step in and become the 30-goal scorer he was in 2015-16. But I think they have more faith in him than other teams and fans alike may have, and they’re taking advantage of the week off to get him ready for some game action. And if he can even be half the player he was five years ago, then maybe their answer for a top-six winger lies internally after all.