Number Cruncher: Thinking fast and slow

Tuesday, 03.12.2013 / 1:44 PM canadiens.com

Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty have a lot in common. Not only are the two American-born Habs all key members of the organizations’s core youth group, but they are both former first-round picks who are just starting to make good on their projected potential. Despite sharing the same bench, however, Pacioretty and Galchenyuk made their ways to the big leagues in dramatically different ways.

Max Pacioretty

As the 22nd overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, New Canaan, CT native Max Pacioretty had the longer and more eventful road to NHL success. At age 18, Pacioretty established himself as a blue-chip prospect by putting up 63 points in 60 games with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, a familiar stomping ground for many

American-born pros.

For the uninitiated, the United States Hockey League is a Tier I Junior hockey league based in the U.S. that acts as an alternative to the Canadian Hockey League for players interested in pursuing a career in the NCAA after their Junior eligibility. Since 2000, the USHL has become a legitimate talent funnel for the NHL, which now boasts over 70 former players, a 50 percent increase in less than a decade. The added prestige and exposure garnered by USHL standouts mirrored the overall rise in the league’s level of play, and helped Pacioretty get drafted in the opening round after scoring at a point-per-game pace in his only season in Sioux City.

Following a successful draft summer, Pacioretty followed the route of most USHL standouts, taking his game to a powerhouse NCAA Division I school. In his case, that team was the University of Michigan Wolverines coached by former Hab and collegiate legend Red Berenson. Racking up 39 points in 37 games as a 19-year-old, Pacioretty spent just one season at Michigan, joining former Habs Mike Komisarek and Mike Cammalleri on the list of famous Wolverine alumni.

At age 20, the 6-foot-2 left winger decided to turn pro, reporting to the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. He split the 2008-09 season between the AHL (29 points in 37 games) and the NHL (11 points in 34 games), registering a solid rookie campaign as a professional. The following year, however, was somewhat more difficult. Despite starting the season in Montreal, Pacioretty struggled at times to cope with the additional defensive and offensive responsibilities associated with being an NHL regular (14 points in 52 games). While fellow 2007 draftees Patrick Kane (1st overall), Sam Gagner (6th) and David Perron (26th) were already full-time NHLers, Pacioretty was sent back down to Hamilton to finish the season (11 points in 18 games).

He used the demotion as a source of motivation, tearing up the AHL (32 points in 27 games) early in 2010-11 before earning a much-deserved call-up to the Canadiens, where he became a key offensive contributor (24 points in 37) before suffering a season-ending and potentially career-threatening injury at the hands of Zdeno Chara.

Fortunately, Pacioretty was able to recover fully. Finally a full-time Hab on the eve of his 23rd birthday, Pacioretty established himself as the team’s go-to sniper. He showed his strength with his first 30-goal campaign in 2011-12 before amassing a team-leading 39 points in the shortened 2012-13 campaign. Now skating on a line with David Desharnais and Daniel Briere, the 24-year-old figures to be a key asset for the Canadiens going forward. As illustrated by his steady progression from raw prospect to first-liner, patience goes a long way when it comes to developing young players.

Alex Galchenyuk

As a franchise known for taking its time with young recruits, the Montreal Canadiens seldomly ask a prospect to make the jump directly from the Junior ranks to the NHL. Indeed, Milwaukee, WI’s Alex Galchenyuk is the lone player on the team who has made a leap like that without a stopover in the AHL or any other professional league. As it stands, the third overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft is the only player selected that year, aside from first-overall pick Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers, to spend the whole 2012-13 season in the NHL. During the lockout-shortened season, Galchenyuk put up 9 goals and 27 total points in 48 games (which equates to roughly 46 points over an 82-game calendar).

To give you an idea of just how rare such a feat is for a rookie trying to break in with the Habs, you would have to go back to Mark Hunter in 1981-82 to find a similarly precocious offensive talent. That year, Hunter, the 7th overall pick in the previous draft, played 71 games for Montreal, putting up 18 goals and 29 points. In fact, since the 1969 draft, only one other Canadiens rookie managed to make a similar leap with greater success: Guy Lafleur (64 points in 1971-72 after being drafted 1st overall in 1971).

While Galchenyuk finds himself in extraordinarily exclusive company, he has been ahead of the curve ever since he first took to the ice as a 20-month old toddler. His father Alexander, a former player in the Russian Superleague, the IHL and the Italian Elite League, played a key role in the youngster’s early development. As a 16-year-old rookie playing in the most competitive Junior league on the planet, the CHL, the younger Galchenyuk terrorised opposing defenders to the tune of 83 points in 68 games for the Sarnia Sting. While it is relatively common for top offensive producers to average one to two points a game playing in the WHL, OHL or QMJHL, only the cream of the crop produce similar numbers in their 16th or 17th year. By comparison, 19-year-olds with over 100 points are a dime-a-dozen, and few of them figure to be impact players at the next level. Meanwhile, at the same age, Galchenyuk is already prepared to embark on his second full NHL campaign.

In 2012-13, Galchenyuk started the play in the offensive zone 58.5 percent of the time, proving that head coach Michel Therrien gave his rookie the best platform on which to display his offensive arsenal. In contrast, the Habs’ most experienced two-way forwards, Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta only took 47 percent of their face offs in the offensive zone and took to the ice against the opponent’s number one line nightly.

As Galchenyuk gains experience in his first 82-game season, he may be counted on to line up for more defensive-zone face offs and to shut down the other teams’ offensive threats. If that’s the case, he’ll be hard-pressed to get onto the scoresheet with the same astonishing frequency as he did as a member of the Sarnia Sting. This would not mean that his progress has stalled, quite to the contrary.

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