When the Canadiens skate out to the strains of an inevitably emotional and well-produced opening audio/video montage befitting a Stanley Cup champion on Saturday night, you can be sure some of the team's best recent draft picks will be leading the way.
Carey Price will hit the ice first, defying the laws of physics by having the team both behind him and on his shoulders. Max Pacioretty will bring his new, bigger, more wrecking-ball-like body to the fray. It's still up in the air whether P.K.Subban will tell his agent to suck it up and make a deal. Either way, the real question is: Will 2012 number-three-overall pick Alex Galchenyuk join the boys as they take on this abbreviated season?
Having seen quite a bit of the young hopeful during his OHL season with Sarnia, and at the World Junior championships, he looks like he has the skills to be an NHLer before too long. He already has a big-league body. He's got sweet hands and a clever hockey mind. He's captain in Sarnia because he's got a drive to win and the ability to lead others by his work ethic. At Habs camp, he's been lauded as "coachable," "smart," "skilled," and "looking good." Whether those accolades add up to confidence-building or an actual indication of his NHL readiness is still up for debate at this moment.
Looking at the Canadiens lineup, there's an obvious second-line wing hole that needs a sizable, goal-scoring player. Tomas Plekanec cannot go another season with a revolving barn door of Clydesdales. He's earned better than that, and getting the chance to centre Galchenyuk in his NHL debut is definitely better. Also, the Habs lineup generally needs more goal-scoring punch, and any chance to bring in a natural sniper would certainly be welcome.
On the other hand, Galchenyuk is 18 with a teenager's inexperience. It's a delicate situation in Montreal, especially during a shortened season, in that nobody wants to expose a future cornerstone to pressure and expectation he might not be ready to handle. Yet, nobody wants to deny the kid his chance to make the team on his own merit either.
Michel Therrien would have liked to have exhibition games in which to judge whether Galchenyuk can translate those nice skills to games against NHL players. Without those trial games, it's tougher, but Therrien has nothing to lose by giving the kid a chance for the five games before his first contract year kicks in. The problem comes after those five games, when the Habs have to decide whether he's better off on a steep learning curve in Montreal, with all its attendant confidence issues and inevitable mistakes, or burning up junior with little developmental reward. Perhaps the right place for him would be Hamilton, but the CHL/AHL eligibility rules prevent that.
In the end, it will come down to what Marc Bergevin envisions in his master plan for the Habs. If he thinks the team can make a playoff run to which Galchenyuk can contribute, he'll be more likely to keep the kid on the roster and burn up a year of his entry-level deal. If he thinks the team isn't ready for a serious playoff challenge, he'll be tempted to send Galchenyuk back to junior rather than waste a contract year in a losing cause. If nothing else, we can tell a lot about what management really thinks of the lineup by the decision made after the fifth game of the season.
In any case, Galchenyuk is the most exciting offensive prospect the Habs have had in many years. With any luck, the organization will recognize his potential, without being blinded into rushing him if he's not ready. That said, if he's close to NHL capability, I'd rather see him gain pro experience and get to know the players he'll be working with for the foreseeable future than spend another year in junior. Even if the Habs are losing this year, he can learn a lot more in Montreal. If they're winning, he could be the player who makes a difference. People worry that rushing a player into the league before he's ready can have long-term negative effects on him and his development. That's certainly true for later draft picks. When a guy has as much skill and is as smart as Galchenyuk, though, the potential for him to adapt quickly is enormous. In his case, he'd also avoid the pitfall many young players face in dealing with limited playing time and weak linemates. If he sticks, Galchenyuk will play on the second line and the power play. He'll get his development time.
I hope he stays. Habs fans have been stuck with frustrating, dump and chase hockey for too long. We deserve some excitement and fun. I think Galchenyuk is good enough to bring both.