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NHL

This Was The Alex Galchenyuk That Was Hoped For

MONTREAL, QC - MAY 24: Alex Galchenyuk #12 of the Toronto Maple Leafs checks Joel Armia #40 of the Montreal Canadiens during the third period in Game Three of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre on May 24, 2021 in Montreal, Canada. The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 2-1. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

One thing you can say about Alex Galchenyuk is that NHL teams have always thought he had promise. More often than not that was damning him with faint (or at least conditional) praise. After a productive if unspectacular six seasons in Montreal, where he scored 30 goals once but never quite lived up to the hype of being a third overall pick, the American forward had the journeyman lifestyle thrust upon him. Since the summer of 2018, he’s been traded five times—five different franchises thought he was talented enough that he might just need a change of scenery. Of course, the counterpart to that is that five different franchises were willing to cut their losses.

You can track Galchenyuk’s falling star by the composition of those trade hauls: Early on, he was being moved for the likes of Max Domi and Phil Kessel; this February he was shipped from Carolina (two days after being shipped from Ottawa) to Toronto for a package of Egor Korshkov and David Warsofsky, two names I promise you you’ll never hear again. Still just 27 years old, Galchenyuk is at least old enough for promise to feel like it’s curdled into wasted promise.

The Leafs, ever hungry for forward depth, were hoping Galchenyuk could resuscitate his career among their Bottom Six of Misfit Forwards, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. In 26 regular-season games for Toronto, Galchenyuk tallied just four goals and eight assists, and found himself a healthy scratch to start the playoffs. Then John Tavares was injured in Game 1, and suddenly a gaping hole opened up in the lineup.

It’d be rude to say Galchenyuk has only dressed, let alone played on Toronto’s second line, because the Leafs didn’t have another choice, but it also wouldn’t be inaccurate. That’s what “depth” is, after all. But he acquitted himself nicely in his first two games, both Leafs wins over his former team, forechecking up a storm and moving the puck well, even if he didn’t find the scoresheet. Until Tuesday’s Game 4, in which it all came together. One assist does not erase everything that came before, but holy shit what a goddamn assist:

That was the game’s first goal. Here’s the second:

Consider those helpers exhibits A and B for the argument that goals, as a stat, are overrated. All William Nylander and Jason Spezza had to do was be in the right place and not fuck up; it was Galchenyuk who did the work and made them happen.

So maybe it was good karma that Galchenyuk got to add an empty-netter to his own goals column, finishing off a fully dominant 4-0 win that has the Leafs up 3-1 in the series and a game away from their first series win since 2004. That it came against the Canadiens might have made the night sweeter for Galchenyuk, even if he wouldn’t admit it. “You know what time it is? It’s the playoffs. Right now, there’s no friends,” he said.

The narrative, after a game like that, is almost a little too easy to construct. Galchenyuk, an admitted and willing reclamation project, almost singlehandedly wins a playoff game by doing exactly the specific things the Leafs and Marlies staffs tried to emphasize in his game when they “reset Alex and … build him back up,” as GM Kyle Dubas put it. If you want it to be, it’s a redemption story, a comeback story, a tribute to Toronto’s system and to Galchenyuk’s humility work ethic. Or, given the larger body of evidence, maybe it’s just a role player having one world-class game. And considering what the Leafs gave up for him (nothing) maybe that’d be enough! If Toronto really does have a contender on its hands here, no Cup run goes all the way without games like this from guys like Galchenyuk, and Spezza and Joe Thornton. And it’s still just the first round. Perhaps it’s not too late for promise to be realized.