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Canadiens’ Alex Galchenyuk quietly evolves into NHL offensive threat

In the midst of a brutal, mediocre season for his team, Montreal Canadiens’ Alex Galchenyuk has bobbed up like a brightly coloured life-raft.

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Some folks revel in the timbre of their own voice.

Alex Galchenyuk is not one of those people.

When the Montreal Canadiens forward was approached by the author of these lines at his stall in the Habs' practice facility, he took on a sour expression and rubbed his face in his hands.

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"Oh my God, I'm so tired of talking about myself," he said.

These days, he hasn't had much choice in the matter.

The American, who turned 22 last month, is perhaps the hottest player in the NHL. In the midst of a brutal, mediocre season for the Habs, he has bobbed up like a brightly coloured life-raft.

It's tempting to think Galchenyuk, who was the prize at the end of Montreal's last non-playoff season (the third overall pick of the 2012 draft), finally arrived as a bona-fide stud centreman this week in games against the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars.

Tempting, but not strictly accurate.

The plain fact is Galchenyuk has been one of the Habs' most potent offensive threats since at least the beginning of this season – his point production per 60 minutes of even-strength playing time is unmistakably elite (15th in the league, tied with, notably, Alex Ovechkin).

That he has been confined to second- and third-line minutes this season – he's sixth among his team's forwards in even-strength minutes played per game – has tended to obscure his progression.

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Yet, he has been on the ice for more Montreal shot attempts and scoring chances than at any other point in his young career. His shot-suppression numbers are also the best he's ever had (playing a lot with defensive ace Lars Eller hasn't hurt).

It is true the 18 games leading up to Thursday's meeting with the visiting Buffalo Sabres have been crazily productive: 13 goals and 17 points.

So what changed?

"I guess I'm just playing with more confidence," he said.

That's surely true, but it's not an especially satisfying explanation.

Here's a more complete one: he's finally getting top-line ice time and playing with talented offensive wingers, he's moving the puck more quickly and decisively to teammates and he's evolved into a shoot-first player.

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Habs captain Max Pacioretty said that while he still needs to pay more attention to defence with Galchenyuk than with regular centre Tomas Plekanec, the light bulb has gone off for his young teammate in the offensive zone.

"You get to a certain level and it's like the switch gets flipped," Pacioretty said. "There's no reason why or any recipe on how to get there, at least that's how it felt with me."

Indeed, Galchenyuk's career progression tracks fairly closely with that of Pacioretty, who broke out in a big way in his fourth full season around the time of his 200th NHL game. Galchenyuk has now played 261.

Coincidentally, that was the 2011-12 season, when the Habs finished last in the Eastern Conference.

Another difference is Galchenyuk is shooting the puck more – he's got more shots in 67 games this year than all of last year – and from different positions.

His one-timer from the off-wing is a weapon that's to be feared, but Galchenyuk said he's been working less on the strength and release of his shot than on when to use it.

"I work on my shot a lot, in the summer, in practice, but this year mostly it's been about variations and being less predictable. You have to adjust because the goalies know the tendencies and they can read you," he explained.

It's the type of detailed reflection that only comes when a player feels he's mastered the basics.

The fact many of Galchenyuk's goals come from areas of the ice not typically occupied by pivots – he scores the bulk of them from the right-wing side – won't quell the angst Habs Nation feels over whether management see their young prodigy as a centre or a winger.

It's not a discussion the man himself cares to wade into. When the subject was broached in jest this week, he clamped his hands on his ears in mock horror.

He started in the middle last October. When coach Michel Therrien shunted him back to the wing on Jan. 15 – in the middle of a season-high eight-game scoreless string – the move inflamed comment sections across the land.

This week he said the youngster's new-found assurance and confidence – and a stretch on the wing in which he scored nine times in 15 games – mean he is almost a whole new player.

The evidence suggests that player was in there all along.

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