Thu Mar 29 03:30pm EDT
Alex Galchenyuk believes he's back up to speed after a major knee injury cost all but the tailend of his draft season.
Entering this season, the storyline in Sarnia pretty much wrote itself. Galchenyuk, the playmaking centre, and Nail Yakupov, the finisher forever cutting in off the wing with bad intentions for opposing goalies, were expected to foment a debate over who was the better NHL lottery pick. Galchenyuk, of course, tore his left ACL in mid-September and needed surgery and six months of rehab. However, he's returned and has been relatively productive considering all the missed time. The 18-year-old centre has had four points in as many games during the Sting's tension-filled series vs. the Saginaw Spirit, which is knotted 2-2 entering Game 5 on Friday.
"I just had to get used to the speed," says Galchenyuk, who could go anywhere in the top 10 picks in a draft year that's become an utter crapshoot. "I did lots of drills once I started skating so my hands were good, but in a game it's different with so many people flying around. "I had to get my game shape back, my timing back. Now I'm feeling better, every game I'm learning.
"Even the routine [from rehabbing to playing] takes getting used to — you used to sit in the press box and now you're playing in front of fans," Galchenyuk adds with a chuckle.
Galchenyuk had 83 points in his first go-round in the OHL in 2010-11, which is more than any 16-year-old in the Canadian Hockey League posted this season. (Halifax Mooseheads phenom Nathan MacKinnon led all 16-year-olds with 78; no 1995-born Ontario player reached 50 points.) That skill did not take wings during Galchenyuk's time away. He says that while he was rebuilding the strength around his ACL, he just reminded himself it's a fact of life for many elite players.
"My mindset was to come back and play before the end of this season," he says. "I just had to tell myself to keep working hard. Obviously, it's a big injury, but it's not a big deal. I just had to keep working hard in the gym every day and I'm happy with my result. My dad [Sting assistant coach Alex Galchenyuk Sr.] had the same surgery when he played and he pointed out a couple things to me along the way. If you look at the top players, Evgeni Malkin, he had the same surgery and I don't think it bothered him at all [since he's leading the NHL in scoring]. A lot of players, like [Marian] Hossa and [Pavel] Datsyuk, have had the same surgery."
'Helping my team win'
It goes without saying Galchenyuk will be closely watched so long as the Sting are alive in the playoffs, since NHL scouts have had such a small window to see him play. One might think the Milwaukee-born centre's top priority for getting back was to showcase himself for the draft. Galchenyuk maintains the playoffs are the payoff.
"I don't think about the draft at all," says Galchenyuk, who grew up in Europe, Russia and the U.S. while his father was playing professionally. "I just think about going out and trying to win the game and trying to help my team win the next game. It's exciting. I was lucky enough to play two games before the playoffs and I wasn't even thinking about scoring goals, it was about getting back and helping my team win. Playoffs are exciting, right? We've won two games in overtime."
1. Injuries have reduced the strength of the spotlight that was expected to be on you and Nail Yakupov this season. But how has it helped you to be on the same team with someone of his ability?
"I don't think we're trying to be where he's better than me or I'm better than him. But it helps to be playing with another Russian guy and a good guy and a great player like him. When we practise with each other, we're pretty competitive. It's fun to have him around."
2. Apart from the obvious — building strength, continuing to improve your skating — what skill do you believe you need to improve the most before moving on to the NHL?
"I want to be a better two-way player. Play well in every zone... I think it comes from the head. I'm trying to get the mindset that I need to be strong in the defensive zone, think about defence first and then start thinking about offence."
3. Who is the toughest defenceman you have faced in the OHL?
"I think it was pretty fun last season playing against Erik Gudbranson [a Kingston Frontenacs grad now with the NHL's Florida Panthers]. Big guys, it's always fun playing against them. And I think Justin Sefton [a San Jose Sharks choice] from Sudbury is another guy I found really hard to play against. But there are a lot of good defencemen. But those guys stand out."
4. Aside from your home rink, where is your favourite place to play in the OHL?
"I played in Ottawa last year and I thought it was pretty cool. The Senators played there [at the Ottawa Civic Centre] a little bit and it kind of had that [big-league] atmosphere.
"It was also pretty special for me to play in Oshawa last season because that was where I saw my first OHL game. That's when I decided to play in the OHL because I watched John Tavares and those guys [during the fall of 2008]. I was over to play in the Silver Stick tournament with my Russian team."
5. Everyone has something they do when they need to get their mind off of work or school. What do you do when you need to take your mind completely off of hockey for a while?
"I think playing Call of Duty with my buddies or with my teammates."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.