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"I have a lot to prove, and I want to win." Alex Galchenyuk returns to the NHL

Meghan Angley Avatar
November 28, 2022

It was a short, perfect summer. The Colorado Avalanche hoisted the Stanley Cup and before they knew it, they were staring down the start of a new season. After a career year, the departure of Nazem Kadri promised an 87-point-sized loss that was sure to be felt.

The loss of Kadri’s production and the search for a second-line centerman prompted a keen, observing eye to look around the league. Though 21-year-old Alex Newhook was being primed for that role, the Avs were also looking to bolster the overall production in their forward group as a whole, particularly with the additional loss of Andre Burakovsky.

A little over a week before camp opened, the Avs signed Evan Rodrigues. The right-shot forward was a late-summer free agency steal on a two-million-dollar, one-year deal. He came to Colorado’s doorstep with a proven role in Pittsburgh’s depth and the ability to play up in the lineup as needed.

On September 20th, Nathan MacKinnon penned his contract extension and an intriguing announcement was almost lost in the mix. That same day, the club announced that 28-year-old forward, Alex Galchenyuk would join the Avs in training camp on a professional tryout agreement.

The 2012 first-round pick was selected third overall. He began his career with the Montreal Canadiens and stayed above a half-point per game through his first six seasons. He recorded an impressive 30-goal season in his third year. In his final year with the Canadiens, he finished the year -31 and his defensive shortcomings were at the forefront.

During the 2019-20 season, his production came to a screeching halt after enduring a lower-body injury in the first half of the season. Playing for six different organizations, he has struggled to solidify a role with an NHL team as of late.

Throughout camp, Jared Bednar had positive things to say about him. He felt the line with Rodrigues, centered by Newhook, was beginning to find chemistry. After appearing in just one preseason game, he was not at practice two days later. The next day, it was announced that he was released from his PTO. He had suffered a lower-body injury.

“I liked his camp, and I liked his first game,” Bednar said. “I thought he was really committed on the defensive side. He has a little offense but the defensive side of things [has been] his knock. He was great. He seemed to be having fun here. Guys liked him.” 

Bednar added that he would miss a significant amount of time but that they would touch base with him again when he got healthy. It was unfortunate. His quest to rehabilitate his career in Colorado would have to wait.

On November 9th, a familiar name popped up in the Colorado Eagles transaction log. Almost two months after his release, Alex Galchenyuk would join the Colorado Eagles on an AHL professional tryout agreement. It wasn’t direct entry back into the NHL, but it was a path back through the organization.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “Even before the camp, you see a Stanley Cup champion team reach out and invite you and give you a chance to come to camp. Once I got in, you see the role they were putting me in and trying me places: it was awesome. That’s why it was a no-brainer for me to heal up and come back as quickly as I can. This is definitely exactly what I want [and where] I’m wanting to be.”

The length of a PTO is 25 games and it can be terminated at any time. He can be signed to a standard player contract at the NHL or AHL level, so the path back is there, but there are a few possible outcomes.

Today it was announced that Galchenyuk would join the team on a one-year, two-way deal valued at $750,000 at the NHL level and $250,000 for the AHL.

Recovering from injury was just the first of many challenges that lie ahead. “[My] health is good,” he said. The road forward will continue to test him.

“I went in and we had a few chats with the coach and with the general manager,” he explained of his return to Colorado. “It was positive. [We were] on the same page [about the] unfortunate timing with the first game of preseason. I was having a good camp, [and] at the same time, things like this happen. It’s the business we’re in.”

“I went back to back to Arizona. I have my place there [and] my doctor that I work with,” he continued. “I did my training there and prepared to come back. I knew my goal was to come back here. I spent seven and a half weeks in Arizona, and then once I got healthy, I came here.”

There are important things to consider. A string of injuries has painfully revealed the importance of depth. The Avs have been without captain Gabriel Landeskog, Val Nichushkin, Darren Helm, and Evan Rodrigues. They’re also awaiting the return of Bo Byram and Kurtis MacDermid. Even their call-ups have struggled to remain healthy as Shane Bowers got hurt on his second shift, Mikhail Maltsev recently sustained a lower-body injury, and Martin Kaut is sick enough he won’t travel this week.

Newhook, though coming into his own, has struggled to comfortably seize the responsibility of a second-line center, and the American League call-up reinforcements have been extremely sheltered in ice time.

As a result, the timing of Galchenyuk’s return to health has presented a short-term problem and a contract would make for a season-long solution. Can he arrest his defensive shortcomings and make an NHL role irrefutable?

He was introduced to the Eagles in a whirlwind. He joined the team on a road trip in San Jose and dropped into games without so much as a practice. He earned a secondary assist in each. Eagles head coach Greg Cronin told him, “Just play. I’m not going to measure you by your defensive abilities right now. Just play the games.” 

It’s been a learning experience for everyone involved. Cronin was familiar with Galchenyuk early in his career. When Cronin was an assistant coach behind Toronto’s bench, he watched the young player break into the league.

“We were big rivals, so I knew who he was. I was curious about him,” Cronin said. “I knew he was skilled, he could score, and he’s a third pick overall, but I didn’t really know him – like his actual identity as a player.”

“There’s an interest in getting him coached into a centerman role with the Avalanche,” Cronin explained. “The first time he came down, it was the first time I met him and I reinforced the message that Chris MacFarland gave him, ‘This is it. He’s got to work.’ He’s 28 years old. He’s got to reclaim his game. [We] discussed how his value system is going to change: he’s not going to lose his goal-scoring or his playmaking skills, but it’s going to change to those being further down the food chain of his focus. “

He will have to be competitive in all three zones. “He has to have that commitment every practice and every game,” Cronin added. “Within that compete level, he’s got to defend reliably in the zone as a centerman. It’s going to become somewhat of a checking mentality like a third line checker. That’s the entrance back into the NHL for him.”

Cronin explained that he won’t even talk to Galchenyuk about goal-scoring and playmaking for the moment. “[It’s] making sure that he’s dialed into being a reliable defender, as a third fourth line player, because he’s big, and he’s strong, and he can skate,” he said. “A lot of these guys lose their way. They define themselves by being scorers or playmakers and then they lose that status or that ability to do that in a top-six role.”

He compared the path forward to that of Val Nichushkin. “First round picks don’t get drafted to be checkers,” he said of Nichushkin. The 27-year-old winger came to Colorado after a zero-goal season. He spent two full seasons with the Avs before achieving a career-high 52-point season in his third year. “He adjusted his game. Bednar did a heck of a job getting him to buy into what they want him to do, and his game has taken off offensively.” 

The question for Galchenyuk is similar: Can he adjust his game so that he can contribute in other ways? “It’s our job to get him on that journey so that he’s able to be confident away from the puck and let that grow from there,” said Cronin.

“There’s a lot of bad habits. That’s why he’s here. That’s why the feedback you get is that he’s not reliable defensively,” Cronin started. “At the AHL level, we’re kind of in the surgery room down here. They leave here and they go to the NHL, so it’s like doing some surgery on his habits.”

Video work can show it, but to Cronin, the reps are critical.

“You have to go out and physically do it and then show him the solution to how we can improve his bad habits. I told him, ‘It’s not easy. It’s hard. Video is great, but how do I change? How do I do it?’”

The process can be daunting.

“You can’t eat an elephant in one bite,” said Cronin. “You have to keep learning it one bite at a time and hopefully he’s able to get comfortable. Now it’s right down to how he stops in a one-on-one battle. How do you come off the stop? Is he in a good position to defend? If the guy has the puck, can he defend the guy with the puck? If the guy moves the puck, can he defend the guy without the puck as he’s coming in towards the net? He’s got to learn how to do these things. There’s a balance because you don’t want to overload his brain [to where] that’s all he’s thinking about.”

The Eagles hosted a development day on November 21st. It was an extended practice that had Director of Player Development Brian Willsie and Development Skills Coach Steven Reinprecht working alongside the regular coaching staff on specific skills and in-game events. Galchenyuk worked at length with Cronin one-on-one going through defensive drills. It was a dialogue, Cronin showed him things and Galchenyuk asked questions. 

“For Galchenyuk it’s like a different language, ‘What do you mean, ‘stop here’’? So I explain to him the ’why’, and this is where I know that he doesn’t know,” said Cronin. “It’s not like he’s a bad defender, he just doesn’t know.”

“These things add up. When you keep doing these things, you get away with like three of them, but the other three you don’t. He’s learning how to defend properly. He’s been playing hockey for 25 years, so he’s been carrying those habits around for 25 years. We’re not going to change 25 years of neglect overnight.”

Attitude is everything. When asked where his head was at with the opportunity ahead of him, Galchenyuk delivered the simplest response.

“Hungry. I mean, that’s everything, [I can] keep it as short as that. Hungry, driven. I’m ready to go. It’s definitely a few years of ups and downs, and I left it all behind me. It’s a new era for me.”

“At the end of the day, I know what I can bring and what I need to still be working on and focusing on. That’s why I’m here and paying attention to those details that will help my game,” he added.

He acknowledged the criticisms of the defensive side of his game too. “That’s something that held me back and didn’t allow me to get offensive opportunities to demonstrate my full potential,” he said. “That’s something that I really want to put energy, focus, and time [into]. There is no better place for guidance than here.”

“Coming here and seeing how the organization does things and how driven and competitive the guys are – everyone is wanting to be better and maximize their potential. That’s why for me and my plan in my career, this is exactly where I want to be,” said Galchenyuk. “[The] coaching staff wants to maximize my potential and bring out the best player [in] me and that’s exactly where my head’s at.”

He has contributed seven points in seven games including a two-goal night. He has been a positive addition to an Eagles lineup also feeling the effects of the call-ups trickling up and down the hockey highway. In November alone, Jayson Megna, Jacob MacDonald, Martin Kaut, Anton Blidh, Sampo Ranta, Oskar Olausson, Andreas Englund, and Shane Bowers have all appeared in NHL games. Right-wing, Jean-Luc Foudy is set to join the Avalanche for their upcoming road trip in his NHL debut.

It felt like a matter of “if” not “when” a contract would be offered. Bednar reaffirmed that it remained a management decision pending their opinion of his progress. “We’ll see how it all develops, how healthy we get, what management’s thinking of his game, and what their decisions are with him.”

Chris MacFarland has been closely watching.

“He’s had a good start down there. He’s been working out his defensive game,” Bednar added recently. “If he had a knock at the National League level it would be the defending aspect. He’s always been a good producer when it comes to the offensive side of it. Greg Cronin has liked his competitiveness, he’s finding a way to chip in five on five and on the powerplay. They like his shooting ability. I really liked his training camp here and his exhibition that he played before he got hurt.”

Somewhere in this conversation for consideration is Ben Meyers, a young centerman signed as a free agent just out of college last year. After being reassigned to the Eagles early this season, he experienced a core injury that kept him out a few weeks.

“Meyers is just getting back, so we want him to get going. He missed a significant length of time, and now he’s only played a handful of games. I’d like to see Meyers at some point,” said Bednar. “Clearly, this is a guy that we have high hopes for. We wanted him to get down there, get playing and get his game in order – kind of like we did with Newhook last year.”

Meyers, who is on an entry-level contract, is an easy player to plug into the Avs lineup whenever they like. He is in Loveland to work on his defensive awareness, and he grants them flexibility in their future planning for their forward group.

As Bednar mentioned, there were a few factors to consider ahead of signing Galchenyuk, but he began producing straight away in Loveland and it was hard to ignore.

You know Alex Galchenyuk was ready to receive that call. He was ready to answer it in September. Can he bring vital reinforcement to an Avalanche team stunned by injuries?

Colorado is not an organization of haste or desperation. You can bet the decision was made based on Galchenyuk’s commitment to seize accountability for his defensive game.

Whether at Ball Arena or Budweiser Events Center, he is appreciative of being in Colorado. “I’m a big nature guy. I love to spend a lot of time outdoors. I’ve been in a lot of places and never experienced Colorado that much before. It’s one of the best areas in the world,” he said. “Then with the mountains, with the air,  with the hikes – it’s unbelievable. Even playing here, the atmosphere is electric. The first game was cowbell night, and I feel like I went home [and my ears were still ringing].”

“I’m hungry. I have a lot to prove, and I want to win. I just have to keep going. Keep bringing. Keep showing.”


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