WINNIPEG, MB. — Much has been said about Brendan Gallagher at the end of the season. Fans and media members alike are questioning whether he is a true first line winger. Guy Lafleur thinks that he could be the next captain. Gallagher, fresh off signing a contract extension to the tune of $3.75 million per year, seems to fall between definable cracks.
The fans love his hard-nosed style of play. He drives the net like a much larger man, and fights for position in front of the goalie as if he weighed another 40 pounds and was a half foot taller. He’s a personable guy with a goofy smile, yet he seems aware that he will always have something more to prove due to his physical stature.
Fans perceptions on who does or does not qualify as a first line winger seems to be stuck in the past. I’ve included the pictures below to illustrate a point that fans seem to forget quite quickly. In the first photo, we have Patrick Roy in the 1980’s. In the next photo it is Carey Price in the 2000’s.
While the perspective is a little skewed on the pictures, I think we can take away a pretty simple truth from this visual comparison: The goaltender’s equipment is larger today than it was in the 1980’s. Patrick Roy is merely one inch shorter than Carey Price, but looks diminutive in comparison.
Similarly, if we compare some basic statistics between the 1985-’86 season (Roy’s rookie year) and the 2014-’15 season we see some interesting numbers around the NHL that I believe point to part of the problem in how we view certain positions on the Canadiens.
Looking at hockey-reference.com, the 1985-’86 season had Jari Kurri leading the way with 68 goals, and Wayne Gretzky with a paltry 163 assists to go with his 215 points. In net, Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltender Bob Froese was first among netminders in goals against average and save percentage, with 2.55 and .909 respectively.
By comparison, this past year the league was led by Alex Ovechkin with 53 goals, Nicklas Backstrom with 60 assists, and Jamie Benn with 87 points in the offensive categories. Brendan Gallagher finished tied for 87th in points among forwards, with a total of 47. Carey Price led the way in GAA and save percentage, posting 1.96 and .933 respectively.
I’m not attempting to put Gallagher, or even Jamie Benn, on the same level as 1980’s era Gretzky. My point is that scoring in the league is down significantly from an era in which a large portion of the Montreal Canadiens’ fan base chose their allegiances, and that we need to reevaluate what we expect our top talent to do.
Not only have we seen a decrease in points, but we have also seen a fairly dramatic drop in shooting percentage. The chart below, courtesy of QuantHockey.com, shows a pretty stark drop from the 1985-’86 season, where shooting percentage was sitting at 15.24, to the 2014-15 season, when this percentage has dropped down to 10.40. Again, this should temper our expectations as to what NHL level talent is capable of doing. Five per cent fewer shots are getting past goaltenders in today’s game, yet as fans, we seem to still expect every first line player to have 50 goals every season.
Brendan Gallagher ranked tied for 23rd in points for right wingers in 2014-’15. While this is a fairly basic examination of what makes a first line winger, I think it gives us a bit of a picture into this tired narrative about Gallagher. He produces at a decent rate, obviously not at the top of the league in points, but certainly within an acceptable range to expect for first line production.
It’s a completely different story when you start to look at the salary implications of acquiring one of the elite right wingers in the NHL. If you look at some of the players ahead of Brendan Gallagher, and look at their points per 60 minutes, and their respective salaries, Gallagher really doesn’t look all that far off from the “elite” conversation. In this table, I have used games played, time on ice per 60, and points per 60 from BehindTheNet.ca, and salary information from GeneralFanager.com. I’ve taken the top-5, as well as the five players below Gallagher, for comparison.
Picking through some of the numbers in the above chart, it’s clear to see that Gallagher is not at the top of any statistical category. However, when comparing him to Rick Nash at the top of this list in P/60, Gallagher is about a point per game less, at about one tenth of the cost. Even with his new contract, Gallagher is still a steal of a deal in comparison to some other members on this list.
Many of the players currently on the list above are nearing the tail end of what many hockey analysts would call the productive part of their careers. Players like Nash, Corey Perry, and Ryan Callahan are certainly not on the upswing, but have large money deals based on current and past success. Part of the hope with Gallagher is that he will steadily climb this list as he progresses in his career with the Canadiens.
The second point I want to address is the notion proposed by Guy Lafleur that Brendan Gallagher could be the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens. One of the things that have impressed me with the way Gallagher plays is his willingness to play on the edge. So far in his career, Gallagher has made a name for himself as a bit of a pest.
I can’t imagine a player like Gallagher, Brad Marchand, or Chris Kreider getting too much leeway from a referee when it comes to debating a call. For Gallagher to be effective at the NHL level, I think he needs to stay very close to that edge to continue producing at the pace he currently is. With his personality on the ice, he just doesn’t seem to fit the persona that most NHL captains have.
Gallagher plays his best with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, while you need your captain to attempt to maintain a calm level at all times. I personally believe that someone along the lines of Max Pacioretty or Tomas Plekanec fit this mold a little better. Let Gallagher continue on his way, without the pressure of the captaincy, and I think we’ll see better results from him in the long term.
So what does this mean? I think when we look at Gallagher, we need to realize that he is an excellent player who can fill a first line role in today’s NHL. He may not be the next Guy Lafleur or Maurice Richard, but he is a hard-nosed player who drives to the net. Gallagher fills a need on the Canadiens, and the team should keep him doing what he’s doing to continue to see this level of production. He’s been a bargain so far in his career, and I think the team is lucky to have him under contract for the next six years.