Great instigator Gallagher instigates greatness.

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Photo: NHL.com

If there is one thing a casual hockey fan knows about Brendan Gallagher, it is that he is an unpleasant player for her team to face.  Gallagher’s reputation is of a player who walks the line between clean and dirty play and seeks out ways to irritate opponents.  In short: he’s a pest.  He’s also a breakout candidate.

Fantasy hockey fans already know there is value in going to the dark side and cheering for the 5’7″ chirper.  In 82 games last year, Gallagher posted a career high 31-23-54.  He also managed 278 shots and 90 hits.  For those who know the reputation more than reality, 34 PIMs may seem low.  You may not be surprised that Corsica.hockey says he drew 27 minor penalties and was charged with only 15.

ESPN ranks Gallagher as the 119th forward, or the 38th RW.  Yahoo calls him the 90th forward and 36th RW (note that while ESPN puts people in just one column in their list, Yahoo’s rank here is based on multi-position eligibility).  This amounts to something like a depth RW in a 12 team league where each team starts 2 RWs in ESPN, or a low-end RW2 in Yahoo.  This is certainly the profile of a player drafted in reasonably deep leagues.  I think he’s worth more.  When I ran my 2018-19 projections for a points league, Gallagher projects as my 23th-ranked forward for 2018-19.  This sum would result from a league where the following categories are scored and totals acheived: 31 goals, 32 assists, 14 power play points, 315 shots, 40 blocks, and 103 hits.

Such a lofty expectation exceeds the expectations of most. Daily Faceoff currently projects him as a second-liner on a miserable Montreal team.  Last year he played mostly with Tomas Plekanec, a veteran who was not particularly effective.  Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin could be attractive potential new linemates.  It seems, however, that Claude Julien wants to spread the thin Canadien talent around.  The prospect of top draft choice Jesperi Kotkaniemi centering Gallagher is tantalizing, but Kotkaniemi is still a rookie centerman who will take time and could bounce around the lineup.  In the preseason, Gallagher, Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault have been locked at the hip. Tatar we remember being a healthy scratch for the Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs after they paid heavily for him in a regular season trade.  25-year old Phillip Danault has played to a lukewarm half point per game pace in about as many minutes per game as Gallagher.  Certainly, Gallagher was the dominant force on the first power play and may have a larger role with year while Shea Weber is out.

A knock on Gallagher is his health record.  Gallagher’s recent injury history, however, mostly stems back less to chronic physical ailments than to freak accidents.  At the beginning of the 2015-2016 season, Gallagher took a Johnny Boychuk slapshot to the left hand, gruesomely breaking two fingers.  This cost him the majority of the 29 games he missed.  In January 2017, a 97 MPH Shea Weber blast hit the same hand and Gallagher missed 18 more games.  Last year, he played a full 82 games.

Dom Luszczyszyn in the Athletic ($) rates each NHL player based on “Game Score Value Added,” a general Wins Above Replacement-type stat intended to reflect a player’s overall skill and contribution.  He has Gallagher as not only the only elite-rated player on the Canadiens, but as high or more highly rated than any forward on the Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, or Chicago Blackhawks, among other teams.  When Gallagher was on the ice, 54.4% of shot attempts (Corsi) were taken by Montreal while 55% of unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) were.  This indicates the Habs were controlling the puck more often than opponents during Gallagher’s minutes.  Not necessarily relevant to fantasy, but indicative of Gallagher’s skill and possible additional offensive upside is that he faced the toughest combination of quality of competition and defensive deployment of any Hab last year.

My projection is based on Gallagher going from 16 minutes to 18 or 19 minutes of ice time per game this year while his teammates shoot a little better. Julien will need to rely more heavily on Gallagher’s shot this year.  The Canadiens have lost depth with the departures of Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.  Gallagher has proven he can again get through an 82 game season without injury.   While many bet on regression from his career-high 31-goal season last year, he put up that number with a near-league average 11.2% shooting — 9.2% at even strength.  If he keeps up his shooting rate with 10-15% more ice time, more goals should find the net.

Montreal’s shooting percentage was the worst in hockey last year, 7.7%.  When Gallagher was on the ice, the team percentage dropped down even further to 6.6% in even strength play.  Positive regression would likely improve Gallagher’s assist numbers.  You may be  thinking that a low team shooting percentage combined with a high shot attempt total while Gallagher was on the ice might mean the Habs in general (and our man in particular) were indiscriminately chucking everything toward the net.  This is not the case.  Shot attempts in the slot (HDCF) were 58.4% Habs vs. 41.5% opponents with Gallagher on ice.  I’ll grant you that the Habs were playing a lot of catch-up last year, meaning that score effects may have inflated the shots and shot attempts from a side playing less conservatively in an attempt to come back, but catch-up stats count just as much as all other stats in fantasy.

When you’re looking at the right wing position this year in trade talks, consider Gallagher.  To owners watching what may well be another season of lousy Montreal hockey, he could be undervalued.  Once upon a time, Brad Marchand was an undersized irritant who didn’t put up big scoring numbers, until he transformed into one of the top scorers in the NHL in hockey.  I’m not suggesting Gallagher has the teammates or even the talent to replicate Marchand’s transformation, but crazier things have happened.  If Gallagher could make even half the jump Marchand did, he’d be even higher than my projection above.  Keep an open eye and an open mind.  Look for an opportunity to buy in.

 

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