TORONTO, ON – In his book Outliers, Canadian business author Malcolm Gladwell discusses how many of the most successful people in the world got where they are because of a lucky situation they once found themselves in. Gladwell doesn’t suggest it’s pure luck – noting the amount of effort, practice, and ability also required when providing examples from the corporate world as well as that of sports – but concludes that the right timing is a critical component on the path to greatness.
Enter Alex Galchenyuk. Certainly he has enough talent to be successful – so much so that the Canadiens made him the third overall selection in the entry draft last June – and while he’s still young, based on what he says off the ice, he seems to have the right attitude to put in the extra hours in the gym to give himself the best chances at a fruitful career. But is that enough? We’ve seen enough busts at the top of NHL drafts to know that such a prospect is still no guarantee.
In Galchenyuk’s case in particular, his stock came with a warning flag. Sure the American center had scored 83 points in 68 games as an OHL rookie, but was he just riding the tails of teammate Nail Yakupov? And what of his draft season itself, where he played only two regular season and six playoff games following knee surgery? Could the Habs afford to risk squandering arguably their most important draft choice of the last two decades on such a gamble?
Enter the NHL lockout. Years from now, we may look back at what most see as a terrible time for hockey as a major event that shaped Galchenyuk’s career, much like Gladwell notes that being born in the right 18-month window enabled Bill Gates to go on to found Microsoft, or being born in January, February, or March (near year-end cut-offs) gives an edge to the development of youth hockey players. Let’s look at what has happened to Galchenyuk this season, and what might have happened had his first season post joining the Canadiens organization had seen training camps kick off like normal in September.
It’s hard to get down on a player for scoring “only” three points in four games, even moreso if such a player is returning to the ice after missing a considerable period of time. But that didn’t stop some from calling Galchenyuk’s September a slow start to the season, at least according to standards for a player of his caliber. Welcome to Planet Habs, Alex. The critics were silenced quickly, however, as the pivot went on to register 7 goals and 18 points in October’s 11 games, and upped it with 7 goals and 20 points in 10 games in November with one game still to play. In fact, Galchenyuk has only been blanked in 5 of his 25 games this year, and his production ranks him tied for 5th in OHL scoring, behind fellow top prospects Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele, and Boone Jenner, each of whom has a year of experience on him. His play has carried an underdog Sarnia squad into the thick of an early season playoff and division race, with the Sting currently sitting tied for first in the OHL’s weaker West Division with a 13-11-2 record.
As if that wasn’t enough, in addition to being a responsible two-way player, Galchenyuk took on an added role as the team’s captain this season. Though he isn’t the most vocal, he leads by example and sets a high-tempo tone for his teammates to follow.
Galchenyuk’s natural talent allows him to dominate on the CHL stage, which has enabled him to quickly regain his timing and confidence as one of the league’s superstars. He is a lock to center a top line for Team USA at December’s World Junior Hockey Championship, which will allow him to test his skills against some of the world’s best, likely including a number of players who would have otherwise been in the NHL should the labour dispute persist into the New Year. If the young and offensively-starved Hamilton Bulldogs can turn things around and make a run at a playoff spot, and Galchenyuk’s Sting bow out of the OHL playoffs in an early round, the future Hab will still get to make his pro debut this season by joining the ‘Dogs for the stretch run. Not only would it be a positive to give a peak form Galchenyuk a taste of the next step, but he’d be a great fit for a team as scoring-challenged as Hamilton has been.
That’s the rosy outlook from where we stand today. Now what if the NHL & NHLPA had agreed on a new deal back in July or August? Or if the CBA expired only in 2013 or 2014? Would Galchenyuk’s path have been the same?
It is no secret that Montreal Canadiens fans are demanding of their players. Expectations of Galchenyuk were high – the hopes of a city were on him quickly erasing the disappointing memories of the disastrous 2011-12 season. And while the more rational segments of the fanbase believed Galchenyuk should play an additional year in the OHL to make up for the season he lost to injury, there was a significant and vocal number of supporters who had him penciled into the team’s lineup for the current campaign, if only for at least a 9-game trial.
Had Galchenyuk come to camp and impressed enough to stick around – let’s say not dominated but put up a few points and outplayed some veterans – the situation could very well have been quite different from today. What if Galchenyuk struggled once the regular season began, resulting in a disappointing return to juniors? Would diminished confidence have derailed his season? It’s not uncommon for some to slump upon being returned to a lower level from the NHL. What if he impressed enough to stay beyond game number nine, but then hit a wall in the weeks to follow, not uncommon for a player of his age? Would his development be stunted and contract year wasted by spending time in the press box? How would he have handled the cameras, fans, and attention in Montreal? This city can be hard on impressionable teenagers, especially the social butterfly type that Galchenyuk seems to fit into.
The truth is we don’t know what would have happened. We never will. What if Bill Gates had been born 3 years earlier; would he still have gone on to found Microsoft? What if Wayne Gretzky had been born in June instead of January; would he have still been on a path to becoming “The Great One?” Gladwell would argue that maybe not. And so maybe – just maybe – this lockout giving Galchenyuk a less pressure-filled season against lesser competition is exactly what he needs to reach his full potential and become the superstar the Canadiens have lacked for years.