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Diminutive Gallagher makes big impression with Habs

He's a small fellow who has left an impression nearly as big as the toothy, aw-shucks grin that constantly adorns his face.

Though physically unimposing, Montreal Canadiens prospect Brendan Gallagher has stood out by dint of his strong preseason play and infectious personality.

"I've been told maybe I smile too much," Gallagher said before a recent game, flashing a broad smile as he spoke. "But I love what I do."

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Having played in three of the Habs' past four preseason games – including back-to-back dates with the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins on Sunday and Monday – Gallagher may be the most-discussed 19-year-old forward to pull on the CH sweater since former Habs prospect Guillaume Latendresse.

"Gallagher, for as small as he is, he's really impressed me. His work ethic, the way he competes in games – he's hit a few posts, he's missed the net a couple of times, I mean he should have three or four goals already," defenceman Josh Gorges said Monday.

Gallagher, whose father is the strength coach for his junior hockey team, said, "I know everyone's watching," and his play is that of a kid who's not cowed by the limelight.

And it has been focused squarely on him and fellow prospect Nathan Beaulieu.

In a lot of ways, training camp this year has been a microcosm of last season – injuries to key regulars have provided opportunities for the Habs to showcase their youth.

"There are a lot of players who are getting more of an opportunity. ... It lets us see where are kids are, and I think it's a good experience for them," coach Jacques Martin said. "The one thing that stands out in [Gallagher's]case is that in every game he's created scoring chances."

At last count, there are 15 players on the injury list, and though there are precious few jobs up for grabs, the continued absence of regulars Lars Eller, David Desharnais and Ryan White means a player like Gallagher or 19-year-old Michael Bournival survived the roster cuts Monday.

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The knock on Gallagher, a pugnacious winger who has scored 85 goals in his past two seasons with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, is that his foot-speed might not be adequate given he is built on a Brian Gionta scale (he is generously listed at 5 foot 9).

But Gallagher hasn't looked off the pace in the preseason, where he has regularly played with veteran centre Scott Gomez.

"I feel a lot faster out there, I worked a lot on my skating this summer, and I think it's been paying off," he said.

Realistically, Gallagher, Bournival (who missed the early part of camp because of injury) and junior-aged players Beaulieu and Olivier Archambault are two or three years from a legitimate shot at being full-time NHLers – the latter two both returned to junior Monday after playing in a 7-3 exhibition loss to Boston on Sunday.

And that illustrates one of the Habs' organizational deficiencies.

While players such as Max Pacioretty, Eller, and Desharnais have graduated to the NHL, there are few bona fide offensive prospects in the Habs' minor-league system beyond former first-round pick Louis Leblanc, who is expected to join the pro ranks this season.

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The Canadiens' short-term options are limited to inconsistent minor leaguers like Aaron Palushaj and Brock Trotter – unless a historically conservative organization is willing to shake off past practice and start the free-agent clock running on a teenager.

The possibility remains remote, but the Habs aren't putting Gallagher through the paces just for fun.

"First I have to earn a contract, that's my main goal right now. ... Once you get that you can start thinking about making the team," Gallagher said last week.

The Canadiens have 47 out of the maximum 50 players a team can have under NHL contracts. No one should be surprised if that number increases before Oct. 6.

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