PITTSBURGH — Alex Galchenyuk could have been No. 1.
His Sarnia Sting teammate and friend Nail Yakupov is expected to go first overall in the NHL draft on Friday in Pittsburgh. But Galchenyuk's collision with a goal post in a September 2011 exhibition game cost him all but two regular-season games and six playoff games in the OHL this season — harming his case for the draft's top selection.
"I think it was a strong possibility," he said, chatting with the media atop a boat sailing down the Monongahela River on Thursday. "It could have been a different situation if I had played the full year. But I'm sitting here and the draft is tomorrow."
Galchenyuk, 18, the No. 4-ranked skater in North America, is still expected to go in the top-five picks and as high as No. 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, whom he spoke with on Wednesday. The most likely destinations are the Montreal Canadiens at No. 3 and the Toronto Maple Leafs at No. 5.
But questions about his injury lingered through the draft evaluation process — as did questions about his hockey future.
"The knee and the KHL," said Galchenyuk.
The speculation about his knee loomed in every chat with potential NHL teams.
"Every day. Every minute. Every team asked me about it. If I were a GM or a scout and a guy didn't play a year with an injury situation, I probably would have asked the same thing, right?" he said. "Every answer was the same: 100 percent."
Dealing with a lost season was something new for Galchenyuk.
"I had never been really injured before. The year before, in the OHL, I played every game and didn't miss a single practice. It was a whole new experience for me," he said.
"It kinda sucked being away from hockey for that long spot. It was a life lesson."
He claims the knee is fine, having held up in the OHL playoffs and when tested at the NHL Draft Combine. To NHL teams looking at him, their concern was how the knee injury would affect his previously above-average skating. To Galchenyuk, it's a non-issue, after a tantalizing showing at the Combine.
Galchenyuk doesn't lack in confidence and self-awareness. He knows his skill set — a superb playmaker with great ice vision and creativity, to go along with size in the middle. He knows where he's come from: His father, Alex, Sr., played for Belarus in the 1998 Nagano Games and played in the AHL.
Thanks to his father's travels, the younger Galchenyuk had an international upbringing, living in countries like Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Russia. He speaks English, Italian and Russian.
("How's his French?" asks a Montreal reporter. "I used to speak French, and I forgot about it," said Galchenyuk.)
He was born in Milwaukee, but his parents are Russian, as is his last name and his accent. That heritage has been treated as toxic for recent draft picks by NHL teams, who raise questions ranging from work ethic to defection for the KHL's money.
Galchenyuk heard more than enough of it during the last several weeks.
"The KHL question got so annoying," Galchenyuk said. "Every time I'd make sure to tell them 100 percent that I'm not going there. There's no chance I'm going there. I don't want to play there. I want to play in the NHL since I was a little kid."
Did the KHL question become a nuisance?
"A little bit, maybe. They think I'm fooling them or something," he said.
Galchenyuk peppers his conversation about Russia and international hockey with declarations of loyalty to the USA Hockey program.
"A lot of people ask me why I choose U.S. when you're whole family is Russian," he said, having indicated he would play for the U.S. internationally.
"I was born in the USA, and I kinda feel that USA is my home country. I like the USA organization and the way they treat the people."
Of course, after Friday night, he could be an American playing in Canada, as both the Canadiens and Maple Leafs are in line to potentially draft him.
"I don't know what their plans are, but I think Montreal will be a good fit," he said, later adding: "I visited [Toronto] after the combine. It's a great city. It's a hockey city. The fans go crazy about it."
He's not sure where he'll be drafted. It's one of the few things for which Alex Galchenyuk isn't sure. He's confident he's an NHL player. He knows he isn't a KHL flight risk, and that he's healthy after his lost season. And he's convinced that any team scared off by his nightmarish year in the OHL will be making a mistakes.
"Not drafting me because I didn't play a year … I don't think that would be a smart thing," he said.