The holidays are a busy time of year for family, friends, and hockey teams. The holidays can also be a time of reflection as we roll into 2014 with a hope that a new year can help change ones fortune.
For Habs management, this period of 7 days between games provided a rare opportunity mid season to sit down and reflect not only on what they have seen this season from the Habs, but also on what they have seen in the past 605 days of the Marc Begevin era.
During this downtime, I have found myself reflecting on this season and last season. The one constant that has really stood out between the two seasons has been Brendan Gallagher. As Habs fans, have been privileged to see Gallagher take part in 84 NHL games. Like many fans and hockey analysts, I find myself enamored with Brendan Gallagher as a player for our Habs.
While our need of a top line center has been well known and documented, Gallagher has ferociously filled another void that has been long overdue to be filled. For far too long, the Habs have gone without a true professional nose to the grindstone pest who can also put the puck in the net.
These types of players aren’t easy to come by, and sometimes you just have to “luck out”. We all know how Gallagher was drafted in the 5th round as a project, passed by all other teams on numerous occasions due to his diminutive size. The skill has always been there (136 goals/280 points/244GP with the Vancouver Giants). So far into his young career the stats only tell half of his story. He has notched up a solid 25 goals and 46 points over his 84 NHL games.
But the true tale of the impact of Gallagher goes far beyond the point totals. His night in/night out compete level, and unquestionable work ethic has easily made him a favourite player of mine. Having this time to reflect on the Habs, I find my reflection turning more and more towards Gallagher. Being a fan favourite for any team comes with a lot of expectations, even more so when you’re a member of the Habs. This has me reflecting both on Gallagher the fan favourite, and the expectations placed on him.
This leads me to have some concerns regarding Gallagher, or more to the point concerns regarding Habs fans as a whole.
Normally as a 5th round pick, there are low expectations that as a player you will never amount to anything in pro hockey, let alone in the NHL.
In recent years the Habs have made a business of turning 5th round players into AHL and NHL assets; None more prominent than Gallagher as of late. Gallagher forced his way onto the team in the lockout-shortened season with the same effort and tenacity that we still see 84 games later. He put up strong enough numbers in his rookie campaign to be nominated for the Calder, but eventually lost.
Coming into his sophomore season, Gallagher has made quite the first impression with not only the team, but the fans
as well. Gallagher didn’t disappoint as he started off with a solid 3 goals, 5 points in the first 4 games of the season as the EGG line caught fire, and showed the still present ability and desire to go to the dirty areas and wreak havoc around the net.
While Gallagher has continued to show effort and compete level not matched by any other Habs player on the ice, Gallagher at times has struggled offensively this season (stretch of 1 goal in 17 games). This is where my reflection on Gallagher and what concerns I have come to fruition.
After a short sample size, my fear is that HabsNation as a whole could be placing too much faith and too high expectation
into Gallagher. Many fans (including myself) are in love with the energy, the ferocity, and the constant smile on his face that he brings every shift. But when you break down his numbers so far as a player (granted, small sample size), there’s two Brendan Gallaghers. There’s the Gallagher who can always be found getting into the dirty areas and scoring garbage goals all the while pestering the opponent.
But we have also seen the Brendan Gallagher that teams have planned for, boxed him out from his
office around the crease and thus keeping him off the score sheet. Every player slumps or has cold/hot streaks, but what happens if the first Gallagher is the mirage? The rookie who came out of nowhere to catch teams off guard and quickly became a “go to” player.
What if once teams started planning around him more and more he easily becomes the Gallagher who will go for long stretched without scoring goals? We know there’s a going to be constant effort and tenacity no matter what, but in a market driven by success and hard working players, would the HabsNation faithful be disappointed if the Gallagher we seen of late turns out to be the true Gallagher?
Look how quickly Desharnais went from a decent scoring center that potted 60pts and dropped off into oblivion for a long period of time. Granted Desharnais contract also comes in to play, but put Gallagher in his shoes. Is that kind of cold streak something that HabsNation would tolerate from Gallagher after 2,3 or even 4 seasons? Are expectations already set that Gallagher is a top two line scorer in a winning team after only a 81 game sample size?
Would a fickle fan base as a whole be happy with 10-15 goals a season from Gallagher or are expectations already set too high that if he doesn’t become a perennial 20+ goal scorer that he eventually becomes expendable because people kept expecting more than what they were getting; all due to the first impression he gave to
Gallagher leaves everything on the ice every shift of every game. There has been many times in his short career that we have seen Gallagher take some ugly punishment, many times I wonder to myself how the hell he still keeps going with the damage he takes. Gallagher is young, in great shape and has a great work ethic, but as I watch him take this punishment on a nightly basis as teams build game plans specifically around keeping Gallagher in check I wonder just how many “good seasons” we can expect from Gallagher (longevity wise) with the damage he takes.
Brian Gionta used to be a similar player as Gallagher, but eventually with all that punishment he had to evolve his game in order to preserve his longevity/career in the league. Gionta’s last season at the 60 pts or more came when he was 29 years with the Devils. While Gionta managed to put up more goals in each of his first two seasons with the Habs than in each of his last 4 seasons with the Devils, his point totals significantly declined and have been on the decline ever
Gionta may still carry a hard work ethic, at 34 years of age he is a shell of the offensive sparkplug that he once was. The physical toll taken by Gionta gives us a good comparable to other similar players, much like Gallagher. While short term his style of play is exactly what many hockey fans (including me) want to see from him, long term if his game doesn’t evolve then I fear that sooner or later Gallagher will begin to break down from the physical toll his style of play requires.
When this starts to happen, will he be given as big of leash that Gionta or Desharnais has got from management or fans (contact aside)? Do Habs fans as a whole want to see Gallagher take the Kurt Cobain approach with his game (“It’s better
to burn out than to fade away”) or make changes to his game that would allow for more longevity at the cost of losing some of his tenaciousness?
Fantasy vs. Reality
Outside of the big stars of the game, as a hockey fan the next type of players to me that earns my respect and interest are the guys like Gallagher. He plays the kind of game that me as a fan I love to see. While he is not currently near their level of accomplishment/talent, Gallagher plays his game along the lines of great players such as Theo Fleury, Dino Ciccarelli, Claude Lemieux.
He may not have not develop the skill at the NHL level as some of those names had, but to be reminded of them through his play goes a long way at establishing himself as one of the games great pests in the NHL today. As much as I hate the guy, Brad “The Schnoz” Marchand has also established himself as a player in this category. But, as we have seen this season with his offensive totals, his offensive ceiling may not have been as high as many Boston fans thought it would be
after the strong start to his career. This has me concerned that HabsNation may have a greater expectation of potential for Gallagher than what they really should have. Putting too high of expectation on a player generally leads to disappointment.
With Gallagher, this over expectation makes me really wonder how fans may react if this kid can’t keep up producing 1st/2nd line numbers. As a fan of his, I like to believe that he can be that 20 goal gritty pest that we sorely needed. I wouldn’t at all be upset if he turns out to only be a 10-19 goal & 40 point player as long as he can continue to do everything else as he has done in the first 84 games of his career. Having him run out of town because he does not meet
the potential that many fans had of him based on the short sample size of his career would be a step backwards for this franchise. And while no one is suggesting that Gallagher is on borrowed time, or on thin ice in any way (quite the opposite in fact), I do believe that Habs nation should keep an open mind about Gallagher’s potential
and keep expectations on him curbed enough to avoid disappointment.
It’s my belief that Gallagher is easily one of the best third line players in the league, and is not a top six player on a
cup winner unless he has the perfect cast of complimentary players surrounding him. Either way, I’m looking forward to watching him grow as a player, and hope that some day he will reach a level of excellence that will put him alongside memorable Habs players of the past. Let’s enjoy the ride regardless if he reaches his full potential or not, as he has already far surpassed the expectations of most 5th round draftees.