This year's edition of the Montreal Canadiens doesn't have a lot to brag about. The players are mostly soft, they play on the perimeter, their power play is out of juice, their coach seems confused most nights and they don't clear the puck out of their own end very well. They can't score for those reasons, and, largely, because nobody screens the opposing goalie. Nobody except Brendan Gallagher.
Gallagher's official NHL profile lists him at 5'9" and 180 pounds. As is usual with players of smaller stature, those numbers are probably generous, and they come with a built-in bias that affects how many guys of that size make the NHL. Most teams will tolerate one short guy in the lineup, maybe two, but there's usually no room for more than that, no matter how talented those players are. This year, there are 22 everyday players in the league at Gallagher's size or smaller. Consider that there are about 700 regular players altogether, and you realize only 3% of all NHLers are around that size. Guys like him just don't make the big time unless they've got something special. Martin St.Louis is a natural goal scorer. Brian Gionta first cracked a strong Devils lineup because he had blazing speed and a sniper's instincts. Brendan Gallagher is in the NHL because he's got guts.
Gallagher has had to prove himself at every level because he's small. He doesn't have the sleek skills of Alex Galchenyuk, or the hockey smarts of Tomas Plekanec, so he used what he did have: fearlessness and intensity. He has never quit on a play in his life. He will go into the corner with anybody, and often comes out with the puck against bigger players, simply because of a dogged determination to do so. When the Habs need a goal, it's Gallagher who's parked in the crease, looking for a tip or a rebound. He takes abuse and he gets in trouble for interference, but he does it anyway, because that's his game. He doesn't have heart. He is heart.
So, when Gallagher takes a shot behind the net, or gets ragdolled in the crease because he's stepping up for the team, someone needs to step up for him. Max Pacioretty has the size Gallagher would love to have. He's 6'2" and 217 pounds and he's on the ice with Gallagher every shift. Yet, when opponents shove the smaller guy around, Pacioretty stands and watches. Big Lars Eller and Rene Bourque do the same, when they happen to share a shift with Gallagher.
This is what's wrong with the Canadiens. Marc Bergevin signed Brandon Prust two years ago to make the Habs tougher. He went out and hired George Parros for the same reason last summer. He's missing the point. Prust is certainly a battler who'll stand up for a teammate, but he's not on the ice with Gallagher very often. Parros hardly plays, and when he does, he plays minimal fourth-line minutes. The Habs can't wait around for the guys whose job it is to defend their teammates to come out on the ice. They have to push back as a team when the guy who's the team's heart is getting abused. The fact that so few Habs have that instinct is why they're so easily controlled by any team willing to physically punish them. Gallagher stands alone on too many nights.
If the Canadiens are to get better, they have to show opponents they won't stand to see their best players abused. And they have to play more like Gallagher. They need to learn from his determination and imitate his willingness to take punishment for the sake of winning. If they don't, and they don't defend the guy who does, they will have even less to brag about in April.