MONTREAL — Alex Galchenyuk agreed to a three-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday and now the question is where he will play next season.
The 23-year-old forward who scored 30 goals in 2015-16 has been slated to be a top-line centre since he was drafted third overall in 2012, but two coaches, Michel Therrien and his successor Claude Julien, have questioned his ability to handle the defensive responsibilities that come with that position and moved him to left wing.
And there are still rumblings that the Canadiens may deal the Milwaukee-born player of Belarusian descent, who reportedly does not have a no-trade clause in his contract.
Galchenyuk was a restricted free agent who had been among 30 NHL players to file for arbitration, but he avoided that ordeal by inking a three-year US$14.7 million contract that averages $4.9 million per season against the salary cap.
The deal left Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin with $9.16 million in salary cap space with 22 players signed — plenty of room for another signing or deal before the season. It will eat up one year of Galchenyuk’s eligibility for unrestricted free agency and he can become a UFA when it ends.
The Canadiens’ glaring deficiency is at centre, where Phillip Danault and Tomas Plekanec have been playing on the top units despite both being better suited to second or third-line duty.
Galchenyuk could be the answer if he earns Julien’s trust by playing well at both ends of the ice.
A slick passer with a quick shot, he has shown he can be a consistent point-producer when healthy and given regular ice time.
After starting his career with 27 points (in 48 games) and 31 points in his first two seasons, Galchenyuk hit the 20-goal mark in 2014-15.
The following season, he staked a claim on a job at centre with a strong finish that saw him put up 30 goals and 56 points in 82 games.
He started last season on fire, producing 23 points in 24 games before suffering a knee injury in December. He aggravated the injury in January and ended up missing 21 games, then struggled through the rest of the campaign when he returned. He finished with 17 goals and 44 points in 61 games. He was especially effective in 3-on-3 overtime, scoring five times.
After posting three assists as Montreal was eliminated in six games in the first round of playoffs by the New York Rangers, Galchenyuk called it “an up and down season.”
He has 89 goals and 204 points in 336 career NHL games.
The Canadiens have one restricted free agent left to sign in AHL goalie Charlie Lindgren.