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Alex Galchenyuk's Audition Proves Worthy of a Second Chance with Minnesota Wild

Photo credit: Jason Mowry (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Wild trading for Alex Galchenyuk would have been a big story two seasons ago. Galchenyuk was then 23 years old, and had fallen out of favor in Montreal. But he scored 30 goals as a 21-year-old, which would have for a marvelous buy-low opportunity.

Montreal shipped Galchenyuk to Arizona instead. The change of scenery did not help Galchenyuk. He suffered a lower-body injury in training camp and struggled to fulfill expectations. His 41 points were his lowest total since age-19.

Arizona moved on quickly, swapping Galchenyuk for Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel. Now Galchenyuk got to start all over again… all over again. And this time, he had an opportunity to get one of the best gigs in hockey. A slot on the wing with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Unfortunately, a groin injury in training camp derailed Galchenyuk’s season again. He never found his footing in Pittsburgh, getting fewer than 12 minutes a night. His 17 points in 45 games weren’t merely disappointing. They were a disaster.

And that’s how Galchenyuk came to Minnesota at the trade deadline this year. Not as a big piece for the Wild’s playoff push. Not even as a my-problem-for-your-problem swap. But as a salary dump for Pittsburgh to accommodate Jason Zucker’s cap hit. An afterthought.

But it’s hard to leave Galchenyuk for dead, even after all the trades, injuries and disappointments. He’s just 26 years old, and has had some success in the league. Let’s take a look at how Galchenyuk got here and his 14-game audition in Minnesota. Perhaps we can figure out whether Galchenyuk is worth bringing back next season.

Galchenyuk was brought into the NHL immediately after being drafted third overall in 2012. He started in a limited role in his first two years, performing well, but not spectacularly. Galchenyuk started raising his game in his third year, when he put up 20 goals and 46 points. Then he followed that up by shifting from wing to center and racking up 30 goals and 56 points.

There were signs that Galchenyuk was going to achieve bigger things. In his age 20 and 21 seasons, he was 22nd of 241 forwards* with 0.97 goals per hour at 5-on-5. That was tied with Jamie Benn and just a touch behind the likes of Matt Duchene and Joe Pavelski.

And while Galchenyuk didn’t generate an elite amount of shots, he was very good at driving offense. His even-strength offense alone was worth 19.4 goals above replacement in those two seasons. That adds up to over seven points in the standings over two years. For context, that’s the same amount of offensive impact as Joe Thornton and John Tavares provided.

Galchenyuk did all this despite still not getting premium minutes. Sure, he got a good amount of power play time. But he had never cracked even 16:30 per night. One had to figure that if he was given more ice time, he’d reward the Habs with more goals.

But those additional minutes never came. And they didn’t arrive in Arizona or Pittsburgh, either. Why not?

Montreal coach Michel Therrien took heat for being too conservative to play an offensive-minded player like Galchenyuk. But he may have had a point. Galchenyuk was a bad defensive player through his first four seasons. Yes, you could argue his offensive output more than canceled out his defensive shortcomings. But center is a crucial defensive position. It stands to reason that Galchenyuk would have to improve before being trusted with more minutes.

Instead, Galchenyuk went from being bad defensively to one of the league’s worst. Galchenyuk had the seventh-worst defensive impact in the NHL over the last four seasons. To make matters worse, his ability to drive offense cratered as well. His even-strength offense was below replacement-level in his final Montreal season and his time in Arizona and Pittsburgh.

Alex Galchenyuk Isolated Impact
Courtesy of twitter.com/IneffectiveMath

So that’s where Galchenyuk was upon arriving in St. Paul. Injury-prone, a black hole defensively and had completely lost his offensive touch. Did he do enough to merit a second chance in Minnesota? Or is he destined to be let go by Minnesota this summer?

Galchenyuk’s three goals and seven points through his 14-game stretch with Minnesota doesn’t leap off the page. But he was more productive than that point total would suggest. He had 2.01 points per hour at 5-on-5, a mark bested by only Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato and Marcus Foligno.

Galchenyuk even worked his way into center duties again, and he acquitted himself fairly well. Thanks perhaps in part to being paired with responsible forwards like Foligno and Mats Zuccarello, Galchenyuk actually had a positive defensive impact in Minnesota. The Wild out-scored opponents 9-5 when Galchenyuk was on the ice at 5-on-5. This was no fluke, as Galchenyuk took 55.7 percent of the expected goal share.

Now we come to the ultimate question: Should Minnesota bring him back?

We have to be clear on what Galchenyuk can and can’t do before answering this. Is Galchenyuk going to start scoring 30 again? Probably not. Will he fit a traditional bottom-six role where he excels in a two-way game? His history suggests that there’s little chance of that.

But can he be a power play specialist on a team with few weapons on the man advantage? Yes. Can he center an offensive third or fourth-line? He certainly showed that in his month with the Wild. Does Minnesota have better options at center? Probably not. Mikko Koivu may retire, Joel Eriksson Ek may get promoted, and the team has little depth up the middle.

Taking a flier on Galchenyuk wouldn’t be an expensive proposition, either. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections predict he’ll sign a one-year deal worth $1.5 million. That move would carry essentially zero risk. Galchenyuk could easily out-produce that deal with even a moderate bounce back.

There’s reason to bring back Galchenyuk next season. It’s hard not to think of Nino Niederreiter or Eric Staal. Both players were at their absolute low point when Minnesota acquired them. Both became unabashed successes for the Wild. Galchenyuk might not carry the upside of a Niederreiter or Staal, but the concept is similar. With the Wild’s defense covering his flaws, adding a healthy Galchenyuk to next year’s roster could be a savvy move.

*With 1500+ 5-on-5 minutes

All stats provided by Evolving-Hockey.com unless otherwise stated.

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