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The sky's the limit

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – In Alex Galchenyuk’s case, the best really is yet to come.

Already among the league’s smoothest skaters, premiere passers and most deceptive stick handlers, the 20-year-old forward has made incredible strides since debuting with the Canadiens back in 2012-13, but he’s as hungry as ever to round out his game and achieve much, much more.

“I want to improve on everything, whether it’s getting shots through, finding open areas, trying to create offensive chances, making defensive plays or just getting the puck out of the zone. I want to work on keeping things simple. It’s about improving every part of my game. I just want to be as dynamic as I can and be more of a difference-maker because I truly believe that I can be one,” stressed Galchenyuk, who boasts nine goals and 22 points in 33 games on the year. “You’ve just got to stay patient and keep working hard.”

Galchenyuk’s teammates insist that mentality is what will ultimately help the Milwaukee, WI native become the type of player the Canadiens envisioned he’d turn into when they selected him third overall in 2012, a draft class he currently leads in both assists and total points.

“He’s had two good years. He’s on his way to having a very good third year," offered Brendan Gallagher, who’s been Galchenyuk’s road roommate since the pair broke into the league together two-plus seasons ago. “Every day he comes to the rink, you see that attitude. There are days when he’ll get to the rink early, hit the ice and work on stuff. That’s what you want to see, a guy that wants to get better. He’s willing to work for it.”

That’s certainly been apparent in Galchenyuk’s seamless transition back to his natural position at center on the Habs’ top line with Gallagher and assistant captain Max Pacioretty. Having played wing for the vast majority of his time in the NHL ranks, it didn’t take the former OHL standout long to showcase just how at ease he is in his new role, winning over 55 percent of his draws in his first four outings combined and scoring his first career hat-trick earlier in the week against the Carolina Hurricanes.

“If you talk about Alex’s physical skill, he’s got everything he needs to be successful at that position. I tend to think that the best centermen are the ones who make their wingers better. Centermen are so much more involved with the play. They’re always down low in the D zone. They’re in the play a lot more because they’re in the middle of the ice. I feel like his passing abilities and his playmaking abilities are what can bring him to be an elite center,” praised Pacioretty. “His size and strength can be helpful defensively in terms of breaking out pucks and winning battles down low to be able to send us on offense. He has everything it takes. I see a huge difference between this year and last year.”

Case in point has been Galchenyuk’s penchant for throwing his weight around more often this season with a purpose. After dishing out 23 hits in 48 games in his rookie season and 49 hits in 65 outings in his sophomore campaign, the Canadiens’ No. 27 already boasts 46 hits to his credit in 2014-15, good enough for fourth on the team.

“This year coming in, I felt like I could be more physical or win more battles because during the summer I worked on my speed and getting stronger, and now I just feel more comfortable,” offered Galchenyuk, who who is averaging 16:33 of ice time per game through the first 10 weeks of the regular season. “I want to be able to use my frame to my advantage, win those puck battles and create scoring chances.”

Pacioretty insists Galchenyuk’s offseason efforts are clearly paying dividends right now.

“The fact that it looks like he’s playing with more of an edge has a lot to do with the type of shape that he’s in. You could only be so strong as an 18 or 19-year-old,” mentioned Pacioretty. “He put on some weight, so that helped him become stronger on the puck and win those battles. He knows he still has more room for improvement in that department. The best part about him is that he’s willing to accept that and try and build his game.”

Feisty in his own right, Gallagher is adamant that Galchenyuk’s relentlessness is another all-important attribute that is steadily earning him more esteem around the league.

“You can see that guys know who he is now. They’re going to come after him, and he stands up for himself. It’s good to see. I know they called [his brief tussle with Bruins defenseman Torey Krug in late November] a “fight” in Boston. It wasn’t much of a fight, but at least it’s out of the way,” cracked Gallagher. “He always plays hard, though. He always competes. I think that’s something that opponents have to respect about him.”

While the way Galchenyuk plies his trade on the ice might have changed somewhat over the last few seasons, he remains the same outgoing and fun-loving youngster he’s always been off it.

“I think he’s the same person. He’s probably a little bit more comfortable around the guys. I think we’re seeing that this year. He’s still the guy that I saw back on Day 1 at training camp when we started out together. He still likes to have fun. He still likes to joke around. He also likes to have success and he likes to work for it,” offered Gallagher, before expanding upon one aspect of Galchenyuk’s behavior that he believes has come a long way over the years. “He’s become a better roommate, too. When we were rookies, we used to have some battles. He used to get up, turn on all of the lights and pack at 1 a.m. while I was sleeping. That’s stopped. We’ve got our schedules down pretty pat right now. I think the chemistry on the road is pretty good.”

It’s been pretty good inside the friendly confines of the Bell Centre, too, where Galchenyuk has thrived alongside Gallagher and Pacioretty since the line played its first full game together against the Vancouver Canucks on December 9 in Montreal.

“Our end goal is to be the last team playing in June. That’s where you want to be. But, you know that it’s a process and you can’t look too far ahead. If we’re going to get there, we’re going to need guys that always compete. He’s certainly one of them,” confided Gallagher. “He’s a guy that we rely on. He’s only 20 years old, and I think he plays a very important role on our team. We need him every night. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I don’t think anyone doubts that he’s able to handle it.”

And, you can definitely count the Canadiens’ leading point-getter the last three seasons running among those believers.

“In terms of his role and what he wants to be, he’s going to be the franchise forward. He’s got to play in both ends. He’s got to score goals. He’s got to be a play maker. He’s got to be good defensively. He’s got to play physical,” concluded Pacioretty. “If we want him to be the player that we all expect him to be, he’s got to be the best in every area. He’s well on his way to doing that. He’s got the right mindset knowing that he has to approach it that way.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for

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