Note: Welcome to SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.
Our ranking of the best under-25 players in the NHL naturally starts with someone who’s been around long enough it’s surprising he’s still so young. Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk is about to begin his sixth full season in the NHL, yet he won’t turn 24 years old until February.
It’s a reminder of both his impressive ability and the fact that we’re still waiting for him to reach his full potential. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft immediately joined Montreal out of the gate as a rookie in 2012-13, and has spent the past five years slowly progressing from top prospect into a key contributor.
Over the past four seasons, Galchenyuk has seen his points-per-game average increase from 0.48 to 0.58 to 0.68 to 0.72. He’s never quite had the monster breakout season everyone in Montreal has been waiting for, but he’s proven to be a good top-six forward who could reach greater heights in the near future.
Last season, Galchenyuk seemed to be on his way to that kind of season partnering up with Alexander Radulov when a knee injury sidelined him in December. He ended up missing 21 games and never quite got his groove back upon returning. He finished with 44 points in 61 games.
The Canadiens will be hoping for bigger and better things after committing to Galchenyuk this summer on a three-year contract worth $4.9 million annually. That deal also opens up big possibilities for the forward, who could hit the open market as a 26-year-old unrestricted free agent in 2020.
It makes the next three years huge for both sides: The Canadiens need to strike while the iron is hot and Carey Price remains in his prime, while Galchenyuk has left open the door for a monster contract in his mid-20s if he can take his game to another level soon. Maybe that’ll finally happen with Jonathan Drouin added to the mix in Montreal next season.
Born in Milwaukee, Wis., Galchenyuk ended up spending most of his youth in Russia before moving back to North America at age 15. He eventually joined the OHL’s Sarnia Sting for the 2010-11 season, where he put up monster numbers (83 points in 68 games) to fly up the draft boards.
The Canadiens selected Galchenyuk with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft, just ahead of a run of defensemen that included Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Matt Dumba, and Jacob Trouba. The first two picks that year, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Murray, aren’t looking too hot right now.
In addition to his various feats at the NHL level, which include 204 points in 336 games, he’s also represented the United States internationally. In 2013, he won a gold medal with Team USA at the World Juniors and a bronze medal with the senior national team at the World Championships.
He’s also the only Montreal player to win the Molson Cup, awarded annually to the best player on each Canadian NHL team, other than Carey Price since the 2009-10 season. During the 2015-16 season, he tied Max Pacioretty for the team lead with 30 goals.
It’s hard to peg down exactly what lies for Galchenyuk in the future given how he’s bounced around during his career in Montreal. Sometimes he’s a winger, sometimes he’s a center. Sometimes he looks like a star, other times not so much. It’s enough that local papers talk about the Habs needing to “solve the Alex Galchenyuk enigma.”
Galchenyuk, for his part, seems tired of being asked which position he should be playing. “I think I answered this question way too many times and you’re asking me again,” he said to reporters at a postseason interview.
So there’s been a little frustration setting in with the 23-year-old, whose talent is immense but hasn’t led to a 60-point season yet. For a player who’s increasingly taken on an offensive role — he doesn’t kill penalties and got a hefty dose of offensive zone starts last season — Galchenyuk needs to score to be a star at this point.
The good news is that he could become that kind of player. He scored 30 goals in the NHL at age 21, and has proven to be a good shooter throughout his career. His 5-on-5 shot rate dipped from 8.5 per 60 minutes to just 5.5 per 60 last season, which isn’t a great sign, but there’s also clear room for improvement there going forward. Staying healthy and getting his shot rate back up will be two key steps to a breakout performance, if it happens.
Is this ranking too high or too low?
That depends on what Galchenyuk does now that the Canadiens have mixed up their forward corps a bit. There are players who didn’t make the cut that have had better performances recently, but don’t have the same upside that Galchenyuk possesses as a scorer.
If Montreal can solve the “Galchenyuk enigma,” then he definitely won’t look too low on this list in a year. But if he’s back at it again in a top-six role with just 50-60 points in a full season, even getting support from Drouin, then it may be fair to start wondering whether that’s just who he is, in which case his argument for next year’s top 25 list would be weakened.
Highest vote: No. 10
Lowest vote: Not ranked