Gordon: Why Brendan Gallagher deserves Calder consideration

MONTREAL — The Globe and Mail

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller makes a save against Montreal Canadiens' Brendan Gallagher, left, as Sabres' Jordan Leopold, right, defends during second period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Saturday, March 23, 2013. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

There are sexier candidates for the Calder Trophy, but here’s an unheralded, pint-sized nominee, submitted for your consideration.

No, not rookie points leader Cory Conacher, silly people.

We speak here of Montreal Canadiens sparkplug Brendan Gallagher.

The favourites for the Calder nominations at this point are Florida Panthers’ talented 19-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau, who should and probably will win the award, Tampa Bay’s 23-year-old Conacher, and wonderful 21-year-old St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko.

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But Gallagher should be on the list of potential finalists.

“I think he has to be thought about, if you think of rookies coming in and being a difference-maker, he has to be mentioned in the conversation,” said Habs teammate Josh Gorges, who isn’t an impartial observer, since he also puts a roof over his younger teammate’s head. “He just never stops. Never. He gets cross-checked, and hit, and buried, and thrown into the goalie, and he gets right back up and he’s back in front of the net. Guys think they can out-muscle him, and sometimes they do, but it’s not going to stop him.”

Gallagher impressed at his first two training camps, and nearly stuck with the team as a 19-year-old, but it was nevertheless a minor surprise that he made the team in January, along with 2012 draft choice Alex Galchenyuk.

He has since moved onto the top scoring line on one of the Eastern Conference’s better teams.

It can be argued he has benefited from playing on a strong team. It can conversely be argued said team would be significantly weaker without him.

The 20-year-old Gallagher, who was born in Edmonton but spend many of his formative years in British Columbia, sits third among rookies in scoring, with 18 points in 27 games.

But it’s the way he has accrued those points that has caught his teammates’ attention.

“He plays like a power forward, only he’s little. He’s like a Tonka truck, I don’t know,” joked winger Colby Armstrong. “I don’t know how he does it down low, you give him a foot and he takes it, and the puck’s at the net . . . guys think they can over-power him, but he’s smart, he can out-manoeuvre, his centre of gravity’s so low he comes through guys.”

An illustration of what Armstrong means: in a game against the Buffalo Sabres last week that the Habs were losing 2-0, Gallagher went behind the net with 6-foot-8 defenceman Tyler Myers and 6-foot centre Cody Hodgson.

He nevertheless emerged with the puck, which eventually bounced to linemate Max Pacioretty, who slid it into the net to cue the comeback (the Habs would lose in overtime).

It’s just one of many such plays in the Gallagher canon.

Though he’s often matched against the other team’s top defensive pair, Gallagher seems to thrive on the competition – it will be worth keeping an eye on him as the Habs visit the sizzling Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, a game that Montreal’s players see as an opportunity to serve notice that they are not simply pretenders in the East.

Then there’s the fact he has developed a talent for driving opponents mental.

He doesn’t do it by running his mouth or delivering cheap-shots, mostly it’s the fact he simply refuses to go away – he also smiles a lot, and nobody likes the guy who leads the league in having fun.

“He attracts a lot of attention, he gets under the other team’s skin, he’s right on the edge of the crease, I think he bugs the defencemen – a goalie lets a d-man know to get this guy out of here, it’s a trickle-down effect where he gets on everyone’s nerves. He’s a heck of a player,” Armstrong said.

Conacher, who is listed at 5-foot-8, an inch shorter than Gallagher, has a lot going for his candidacy.

Undrafted out of Canisius College, he became a dominant AHL player (and was named the league’s MVP a year ago), he battled his way on to the Lightning’s roster and has put up 23 points in 33 games.

But he’s been a pro for three years, and the underlying stats suggest he isn’t as well-rounded a contributor as Gallagher, a fifth-round draft pick who is in his first pro season.

He may not be the most offensively polished player in this year’s rookie class – that honour would go to Tarasenko and Huberdeau – but he does have redeeming qualities.

Gallagher is tied for first in plus-minus among rookie forwards (along with Brandon Saad of the Blackhawks)

He leads all first-year players in game-winning goals, despite playing less than any other top rookie save teammate Alex Galchenyuk.

He sits fifth in takeaways, and third among rookie forwards in blocked shots.

Gallagher is also third among forwards on his team with his Corsi rating – the Habs outshoot their opponents by an average of 14 shots per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice, and by just three when he’s not – although he has benefited from a whole mess of offensive zone starts (he begins two thirds of his shifts in the other team’s end).

Conacher has a negative Corsi rating, and while his quality of competition – per behindthenet.ca – is higher, so is his quality of teammates.

And while the two have nearly identical power-play time and Conacher starts more of his shifts in the defensive zone, Gallagher doesn’t have the benefit of playing with Steven Stamkos.

Conacher’s production has also slowed considerably since a hot start – he has just five points in 13 games.

The skill and talent of Huberdeau and Tarasenko, who missed several games with a concussion (Gallagher also had one earlier this year), suggest they will be locks for a Calder nomination.

Conacher’s feel-good story also deserves consideration, as does the remarkable play of Edmonton Oilers defenceman Justin Schultz (one can also make the case for Ottawa defenceman Patrick Wiercioch, who has the same number of points as Schultz for a depleted Sens squad).

Still, it will feel like at least a minor injustice if Gallagher, should he keep up his current level of play, were to go completely unrecognized.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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