TORONTO, ON –- Certainly no Habs fan is surprised that 2012 third overall selection Alex Galchenyuk sits in the top-20 of Ontario Hockey League scoring 10 games into the season. Galchenyuk appears to be turning it up a notch after a predictably “slow” (by his expectations/standards) start given his having missed nearly all of last season rehabbing from knee surgery. The surprise – perhaps the biggest amongst all Montreal Canadiens prospects thus far this season – is that another of the team’s 2012 picks joins Galchenyuk in the top 20 in Windsor Spitfires’ pivot Brady Vail.
By no means am I suggesting Vail is or was a slouch of a prospect. Picking up the likes of Vail and Charles Hudon in later rounds – players that many pegged to go much earlier – was a big contributor to many declaring the Habs one of the winners on draft day. However, most saw Vail as primarily a defensive forward, projecting him a third line shutdown type whose skating was his biggest weakness. While that does remain a concern, a new element of his game has been on display in the early goings, with his five goals and 13 points through 10 games offering hope that he has more offensive upside than his 52 points in 68 games last season indicated.
I had a chance to watch both Galchenyuk and Vail play on Thanksgiving Monday as OHL rivals Sarnia and Windsor went head-to-head, but waited to concretize any thoughts in order to observe the games that followed my one viewing for a complete picture of their performance. On that afternoon, the Sting prevailed 4-3 in a shootout, thanks to a marathon-ending winner by Sarnia forward Reid Boucher. Both Vail and Galchenyuk had opportunities during the breakaway competition, but were stopped.
Galchenyuk was underwhelming on the day, generating some chances offensively, but appearing weak in his own end at even strength, uncharacteristic from a typically two-way player. He was coming off two and four point nights in his previous two games, and pointed out when interviewed during the first intermission that it was the team’s third game in four nights and players were tired. This shouldn’t be looked at as an excuse, but more reality that a player who was only in his 7th game of the season after missing so much time isn’t in peak conditioning form and would wear out, particularly given the long and difficult minutes he plays for his club.
Galchenyuk was on the ice for 1:30 or more of most Sarnia powerplays, most frequently positioning himself beside the net. It’s from there where he was most impressive throughout the day, using his strength to take pucks from along the boards or behind the net and charge them on goal. He also played considerable time on the penalty kill, racking up a couple of shot blocks, and also seemingly always looking for openings to take the puck up ice and counterattack.
If his tanks were in fact empty for this game, he didn’t show it in the slightest in overtime where he was the most dangerous player on the ice and had a few opportunities to end the game only to be turned away. At even strength, with coach Jacques Beaulieu looking to get away from opposition line matching, Sarnia trios were juggled frequently, with Galchenyuk starting the game on a line with Charles Sarault, but Sarault later joining Boucher instead to create more balanced units. This allowed him to rest his captain a little bit later in the third, which may have contributed to his OT surge.
Speaking of Galchenyuk’s captaincy, it was also interesting to note that he wasn’t the one to address the officials in case of disputes or when explanations were needed, rather leaving that task to his assistants. He moreso plays the “lead by example” role.
Is an average performance something to be concerned about? Not at all, considering his stats in the 2 games prior, his understandable fatigue, and that his line put up much stronger showings in the two games that followed, generating plenty of scoring chances and with Galchenyuk adding three assists to his point total.
Another reason for Galchenyuk’s game being a little off on this day may have been the play of the other future Hab on the ice, Brady Vail. Windsor head coach Bob Boughner matched Vail up against Galchenyuk’s line right from the opening face-off, and the 6-foot-1 center did a phenomenal job of pressuring the opposition all game long, with there being nary a shift that saw one American forward on the ice without the other being on for the opposition. Vail was a constant threat at both ends of the ice, creating numerous turnovers in Sarnia’s end, and firing multiple quality shots on net. Vail collected a nice assist with a smooth backhand set-up from behind the goal in the third period.
When not busy shadowing his rival from Habs’ Development Camp this past summer (the two frequently traded Twitter jabs and horseplayed between drills in Brossard), most impressive about Vail’s game was his ability to control the pace of play. In fact, “control” is perhaps the most succinct way to describe the 18-year old’s game. He may not be the quickest of foot, but when he is in possession of the puck, it seems glued to his stick and he demonstrates great vision of the play unfolding around him. This can be largely attributed to above-average hockey sense, combined with a threatening ability to back defenders off, leaving him with more time to execute.
For Vail, the Sarnia game snapped a two-game “slump,” during which he had recorded no points and had a minus-4 rating. Though he was left out of the three stars in favour of the two netminders and winning goal-scorer Boucher, for his overall contributions on the ice, trying to be as objective as an observer as I could be, Vail was for me the best player in the game. He followed it up with a goal and two more assists over his two next matches.
While Vail won’t be dazzling any scouts or fans with the kind of soft hands that are a big part of Galchenyuk’s game, his play should garner some attention from the staff selecting Team USA’s squad for this winter’s World Junior Championship. Though he was not a part of the program’s summer camp in Lake Placid, as a versatile, hard-working two-way player, the fact that he could slot in anywhere in the forward lineup in a variety of roles might be enough to earn him a look in December, not unlike how Canada’s management saw Michael Bournival last year.
Sarnia and Windsor both compete in the Ontario League’s West Division, where the rivals have each currently amassed 11 points. If Vail does get a call for Team USA, certainly Galchenyuk wouldn’t feel too badly about having him on his team instead of on his tail for a few weeks.