MONTREAL – A contender for the Calder trophy, one of the best surprises of the Canadiens’ comeback campaign only seems to keep getting better with time.
Size is never something that’s stopped 5-foot-9 Habs rookie, Brendan Gallagher, from taking giant strides on the ice. Try telling him otherwise and you’ll likely be just another doubter in the 20-year-old’s rearview mirror as his NHL career continues to pick up steam.
For any Canadiens fan with an eye on the young winger as he rose to the top of his WHL and AHL teams, not to mention during his attention-grabbing stint at the Habs’ 2011-12 training camp, it was clear Gallagher wasn’t far off from making the jump to hockey’s highest level. That said, no one could have predicted the immediate impact the Edmonton native would have on the Canadiens lineup once he arrived – although if you ask him, he’s likely to give you the story from a different angle.
“I don’t know if I’m really even there yet,” said Gallagher, eager to downplay any personal contributions in favor of a focus on the big picture. “Coming into training camp, I wasn’t taking anything for granted. I didn’t think I would get the chance to be here right now if I didn’t show up every day, have a great camp and work really hard the whole time.
“That’s the mindset I’m still in,” he added. “I have to continue to do all those things, keep trying to impress people and hopefully if I can keep doing that for a long enough period of time, good things will eventually happen.”
While it’s not hard to imagine Gallagher’s performances continuing to improve as his NHL experience grows, it is hard to argue that good things haven’t already started to happen for him. The only fifth-round pick from his 2010 Draft class to be currently playing in the NHL, Gallagher has established himself as one of league’s most valuable rookies to his team. He ranks third in NHL rookie scoring with 19 points, behind only Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau (20) and Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher (22), but dominates all top-five rookie scorers as the only one to boast a positive differential with an impressive plus-8.
Despite his ever-present smile and infectiously positive approach to the game, Gallagher plays a brand of hockey that comes complete with an inherent edge. Unafraid to frustrate the competition by taking up the punishing real estate in front of an opposing net, crashing into the corners with players twice his size or even dropping the gloves when the situation calls for it, the speedy forward’s grin isn’t always a friendly one.
“I always enjoy what I’m doing, I’m always happy, but when I hit the ice I’m a pretty competitive person,” shared Gallagher, who currently holds the title as the Vancouver Giants’ all-time goal (136) and points (280) leader, from his 244 games with the club. “I’ve always been that way and my parents have told me more than a few stories about it from when I was a kid. Losing is something I hate – I think I actually hate to lose more than I like to win. It’s just something that happens when you hit the ice and you want that feeling of victory and you know you’re going to do whatever you can for the team.”
According to the rookie winger, while that kind of character might have been instilled in him by his family from an early age, it’s continued to develop in Montreal thanks to the company he’s kept since becoming a Hab. With a game built from a blend of work ethic, attitude and team-first mentality, showcasing all the traits the 2012-13 Canadiens have based their identity on, it’s little wonder that Gallagher lists Josh Gorges as his biggest influence on the team.
“Obviously living with him and spending a lot of time with him off the ice has meant a lot. He’s been really good to me and really tried to help prepare me to make sure I understand what comes with playing in a city like Montreal,” expressed Gallagher, on the subject of his housemate/teammate.
“He doesn’t have to work too hard to stop me from making mistakes because I think he trusts me enough not to do anything too stupid,” he joked. “He just makes sure I’m doing the right things on and off the ice. If he sees something in my game, he’s not afraid to tell me about it. I just get a lot from watching the way he prepares because he’s obviously one of the true leaders on this team and a good place to look to make sure you have the right attitude.”
While the assistant captain’s presence has clearly been a key influencing factor for the Canadiens’ younger players – particularly Gallagher – even Gorges might be surprised to find out just how far back that influence goes.
“I don’t even know if he remembers this, but during my very first training camp here, we were doing drills and he just came up to me to give me some advice,” recalled Gallagher, of the team’s 2010-11 training camp. “He told me that as a smaller guy trying to win battles in the corner, I shouldn’t try and play overly-physical and should try to use my smarts – to take that edge that you have and use it to you your advantage. That kind of stuck with me since my first training camp here and I was really able to use that. I tried to base my game off smart players and play that type of hockey.”
If his first NHL campaign is any indication, that piece of advice has been paying dividends. An early contender for this year’s Calder Trophy, while he may not finish first in rookie scoring, Gallagher continues to distinguish himself from other first-years through his maturity on the ice, consistent energy and the many other intangibles he brings to the table.
To top it all off, when asked to point out his favorite moment since the start of his NHL career, the 20-year-old proved he even has his priorities straight when it comes to a certain quintessential quality it takes to play for Montreal.
“Probably the game in Boston [on Mar. 3],” he said, recalling his two-point, plus-3 performance in Bean Town. “The atmosphere was great. I loved the intensity level and the way we were hated by the crowd there. It was fun to be a part of – but even better to get the win.”
Justin Fragapane is a writer for canadiens.com.
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