Call it Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller’s enduring contribution to the NHL lexicon.
Something he dubs the “junior moment,” wherein a player, usually one with dominant offensive skills in the lower levels of the sport, reverts to old junior habits in key game situations.
“Like trying to beat guys one-on-one at the wrong places, sometimes it’s starting to stickhandle and stopping your feet when you’re looking for passes, that’s when you lose your time and space, it’s a big junior tendency – panicking when you don’t have to,” said the 23-year-old Eller, who is the first to admit he has suffered his share of junior moments.
The NHL game is an unsentimental teacher, and players quickly learn the guys at this level are, to put it mildly, somewhat more accomplished than in their previous hockey stops.
It happens to everyone, to a greater or lesser degree.
All of which leads, circuitously, to the Habs’ hottest player over the past couple of weeks, 19-year-old Alex Galchenyuk, who has played most of his first NHL season on Eller’s left wing.
If Galchenyuk, the third player chosen in the 2012 draft, has fallen prey to his junior instincts this season, in Eller’s estimation they have all but disappeared as the regular season winds down (“He’s made huge strides,” he said).
It’s been as simple, Galchenyuk said, as having a better handle on what you can and can’t do at the NHL level.
“There’s stuff in junior that I would get away with, to be honest there was some stuff in junior I wouldn’t even pay attention to. Plays on the half-board, losing the puck at the blueline. … I didn’t pay that much attention, I knew I could always recover,” he said. “I was such an offensive player in junior and here it’s tougher, it’s so much a system, you have to play the right system to be successful, in junior you don’t have to pay this much attention.”
Stats can only reveal so much about a player – Galchenyuk oozes skill, his wrist shot and stickhandling in tight quarters are clearly elite.
In the first period of a recent game against the Washington Capitals, he scooped up a loose puck at his own blueline, stormed down the left side-boards, and left Caps defenceman John Carlson grasping at air with a sumptuous outside-inside deke.
Without slowing down, he made a power move to the middle and passed off to linemate Brandon Prust, whose simple backhand feed to Eller was deposited in the net.
It would be the first of two assists for Galchenyuk on the night.
In fact, he has chalked up more first assists in five-on-five situations than any other Hab, his advanced possession stats are top-five on the squad, and his contribution of 2.69 points per 60 minutes spent on the ice, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, is third best on the team.
There’s also evidence he hasn’t struggled too badly with the defensive intricacies of the NHL game, his plus-minus differential is second best on the team, although he has often been sheltered from the opposing team’s top lines and defencemen.
The Sarnia Sting grad, who missed most of his draft year because of a knee reconstruction, has also crept into the NHL rookie scoring race, and sat only four points behind leader Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers going into Tuesday’s action.
More astoundingly, Galchenyuk has managed to do all this in limited ice time – he has seen scant time on the power play, for example, all his points have come at even strength.
Galchenyuk scored his first NHL goal in his second game in the league, but after posting seven points in his first seven games, went into an offensive dry spell.
The American-born forward contributed only seven points, and two goals, in his next 24 games.
But the metaphorical light switch was flicked Apr. 3, a 5-3 loss to Philadelphia in which Galchenyuk collected an assist, and marked the beginning of a string in which he’s scored nine points in his past 10 games – six of them goals.
He’s done it while averaging less than 11 minutes per game over that same stretch, which has led to criticism that coach Michel Therrien isn’t using one of his most dangerous offensive assets nearly as much as he should, particularly in a team that’s floundering offensively.
While Therrien may be justified in taking a prudent approach, the coach that professes to divvy up ice time according to performances and merit may have his hand forced if his new prodigy continues his strong play into the postseason.