The long road back for Sarnia Sting center Alex Galchenyuk
, who underwent knee surgery in October, hasn't been easy.
Then again, maybe one of the top North American prospects eligible for 2012 NHL Draft would have it no other way.
"My goal is to not come back as a normal player, as an average player, but come back better than I was before the injury," Galchenyuk told NHL.com.
He'll find out just where he stands Wednesday when Galchenyuk makes his season debut against the Saginaw Spirit at RBC Centre in Sarnia.
"Never was there a time (during rehabilitation) where I wanted to give up. My dream is to play in the NHL, and I want to play there as soon as possible, so you just can't stop and watch TV."
-- Alex Galchenyuk
The Sting announced Tuesday afternoon that Galchenyuk would return the lineup. Sarnia has three regular-season games remaining before the start of the OHL playoffs, which commence March 22.
"It's great that Alex is able to get in a few games prior to the playoffs to help regain some of that game shape that will take some time," Sting General Manager/coach Jacques Beaulieu said in a statement. "That being said, how much he plays and in what situations he plays will be monitored very closely."
The timing of his return is perfect for Sarnia because Nail Yakupov
, NHL Central Scouting's top-rated North American skater in its mid-term rankings, will be sidelined at least the next three games with an upper-body injury he sustained after taking an open-ice hit from Owen Sound Attack forward Mike Halmo
on March 10. Yakupov expects to return for the OHL playoffs. The OHL announced Tuesday that Halmo had been suspended indefinitely.
"We have to keep in mind what is best for Alex not just this season but for his career moving forward," Beaulieu said. "He has a bright future in this game and that is always the top priority when dealing with any of our players."
Despite missing his team's first 65 regular-season games, there's a strong possibility Galchenyuk still could be drafted among the top 10 players in the first round of this year's draft. He's ranked as a "limited viewing" player on Central Scouting's mid-term rankings, but was No. 2 among Ontario Hockey League skaters in Central Scouting's preliminary rankings.
Playing alongside Yakupov in Sarnia, Galchenyuk produced 31 goals and 83 points in 68 games last season. It was enough to make believers out of any scout who had the opportunity to watch him play.
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"One element for Galchenyuk is the fact he played last year, and going into this season he was already recognized as one of the top prospects," Dan Marr, Director of NHL Central Scouting, told NHL.com. "I think most of the teams are pretty comfortable in knowing the type of player they'll be getting. Obviously you'd like to see him play during his draft year, but the scouts and general managers are going to be more concerned with how the surgery went, what type of surgery it was and how the recovery process is going along."
There's little doubt Galchenyuk will be in high demand at the NHL Scouting Combine in May.
"Where he goes in the draft is going to depend how well he recovers from this," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards, who specializes in OHL players, told NHL.com. "It's going to make the Combine that much more important when the doctors look at him. My guess is he'll bring the MRI results to the Combine in order to have doctors make their evaluations.
"As long as it's not career ending, I really can't see it affecting him that much. He's too good a player."
Some scouts have compared the 6-foot-0.5, 198-pound Galchenyuk to Chicago's Marian Hossa
Galchenyuk, who turned 18 on Feb. 12, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a Sept. 16 preseason game against the Windsor Spitfires. He was cleared by doctors to resume skating in February,
"I remember laying on the ice and thinking, 'Hopefully, it's not serious,'" Galchenyuk said. "I went to the locker room and was feeling my knee and it felt OK because in your head, you want to think it's nothing serious. When I found out, I wanted to get surgery as soon as possible so my goal was to come back and play this year."
Galchenyuk never got discouraged or disheartened during the rehabilitation process.
"Never was there a time (during rehabilitation) where I wanted to give up," Galchenyuk said. "My dream is to play in the NHL, and I want to play there as soon as possible, so you just can't stop and watch TV.
"You need to go to rehab. It was tough for the first month. We drove to London (Ont.) every day, and that took like an hour. It's a long, slow process. When you're months away from skating and on crutches, you say, 'Oh gosh.' But my family, doctors and therapists help me a lot."
Born in Milwaukee while his father, Alex Sr., was playing for Milwaukee Admirals of the IHL, the younger Alex lived all over Europe while his father played in Russia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Belarus, and represented Belarus at the 1998 Olympics. Alex speaks Italian, Russian and English.
Alex holds dual U.S./Russian citizenship, but said he plans to represent the U.S. at international competitions. He played for the U.S. at the Ivan Hlinka
Memorial Tournament in August, where he had 2 goals and 3 points in five games.
"I've learned a life lesson through this (rehabilitation)," Galchenyuk said. "It's more of a mental lesson where you have to think about your work off the ice."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale