📝 by Patrick Williams
A bus headed south through California, somewhere between San Jose and Bakersfield, back in November.
At least it did until it broke down.
So there, stranded on the side of the highway, stood the Colorado Eagles.
In that group was Alex Galchenyuk, a long-time National Hockey League star just two games into an AHL opportunity with the Eagles that he hoped could revive his career. Eagles head coach Greg Cronin and his players had plenty of time while they waited.
No one can deliver blunt, heart-felt advice honed through more than 35 years in the sport as a coach quite like Cronin. And, well, given that the Eagles would not be going anywhere soon, now seemed like a good time to chat with his latest player project.
“I had a chance to sit down with Alex to talk about his life and about what did he want to achieve with this new opportunity in Colorado,” Cronin recounted.
That is where the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche — and by extension their AHL affiliate, the Eagles — come into play.
Galchenyuk, 28, brought an impressive pedigree with him to the Colorado organization when he accepted a training camp invitation in the fall. The third overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. A 30-goal season with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015-16. Nearly 650 NHL games to his name. It is a career that any AHL player — and most NHL players — would take happily.
But since June 2018, Galchenyuk has been traded five times, cycling through the Arizona Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild, Carolina Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs organizations. He returned to the Coyotes as a free agent last season, where he finished with 21 points in 60 games.
Then, fighting for his career, it was off to training camp with the Avalanche. The tryout deal would have to suffice for the time being, but it was an intriguing opportunity with a team three months removed from winning the Stanley Cup.
“I was definitely fired up,” Galchenyuk said.
However, he had another setback when he sustained an injury in camp. Once he healed, he signed another tryout, this time in the AHL with the Eagles, and promptly went to work. There were no guarantees from the Avalanche. Aside from a six-game stint with the Toronto Marlies back in 2020-21, Galchenyuk was about to embark on the first extended time in the AHL of his 11-year career.
Cronin has extensive contacts throughout hockey. He had checked with people familiar with Galchenyuk from that time with the Canadiens. Eagles assistant coach Tim Branham had his own network that focused on Galchenyuk’s run in Toronto.
On the side of the highway, Cronin shared with Galchenyuk what he had heard.
“I said, ‘Hey, this is what the knock is on you. You don’t have to respond to this because it’s history. Let’s rebrand you as a player. Let’s create a path where we’re all going to work together to get you to achieve your goal, which is to get back to the NHL and be a reliable player.’”
Cronin had Galchenyuk’s ear. Simply put, Galchenyuk had to become a much more dependable defensive player if he was ever to return to the NHL.
“From the moment we met with them, he was completely invested,” Cronin said.
Eventually that Eagles bus got back on the road, and Galchenyuk has continued to make an impression. He adapted quickly, putting up seven points (three goals, four assists) in his first seven games with the Eagles and committing to the overhaul Cronin wanted to see. On Nov. 28, the Avalanche signed Galchenyuk to an NHL contract for the remainder of the season, and he earned a four-game spin with the big club before returning to the Eagles.
But how does a player change 10 years — and, really, a lifetime — of habits?
An ability to deliver offensively long had been Galchenyuk’s roadway to considerable NHL success. Those habits that the Avalanche and Cronin wanted to adjust are not easily changed. Nor are perceptions around the hockey world about what Galchenyuk can provide to an NHL roster. That his offensive production had dipped considerably in recent seasons certainly did not help matters.
However, Cronin has a repository of practice drills for every on-ice need imaginable. He has collected them from the likes of Grant Standbrook and the late Shawn Walsh from his time at the University of Maine, and they are based on athletic principles from across sports.
“You’ve got to go into the fundamentals,” Cronin explained. “You can tell right away who has never done [these drills], who’s never been aware of what they’re doing poorly.”
Cronin has had success reinventing and retooling players with the Eagles. Defensemen Ryan Graves and Jacob MacDonald had acquired unflattering labels: Graves could not be relied on, MacDonald was too one-dimensional. But sometimes a new way of looking at the game just clicks for a player. It did for Graves and MacDonald, who are both in the NHL now.
“They didn’t realize that they weren’t managing the defensive side of the game the right way,” Cronin said.
“Alex, it was all new to him.”
Said Galchenyuk: “I didn’t put the same amount of focus and concern on those [defensive] areas, and it definitely caught up to me.”
Without diving too deeply into the details, Cronin broke down a common issue for players who struggle away from the puck.
A player, Cronin began, “will go out and play a guy [with] the puck at, say, the top of the circles. The [opponent] will move [the puck] to the goal line, and the [player] is defending the [opponent] who moved the pass. Well, he’ll circle, and the guy who made the pass will jump into an open space.
“It’s just a habit. The guy just keeps doing it. You can tell a guy to stop doing it. ‘Well, how do I stop?’”
Joked Galchenyuk when asked for details on areas of focus, “We’d be talking for a few hours.
“For me it was important to get my 200-foot game to a different level. [Cronin] spends a lot of time on development and certain detailed aspects of the game that for me [are] exciting because I never heard of them before. It’s a little different approach, and it takes time to master. At the same time, when you do, the game comes so much easier to you.”
And so that work continues. The practices and defensive drills pile up for Galchenyuk. Positioning. How to use one’s body more effectively. How to use one’s center of mass. How one pivots. So, too, do the games in which he can implement those lessons and commit them to instinct and muscle memory. The offensive touch is still there, too, especially against less experienced competition. In 25 games with the Eagles, Galchenyuk has 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists), good enough to put him only six points off the team lead. This is, after all, a player who had that 30-goal NHL season.
In third place in the Pacific Division, Colorado (25-14-3-0, 53 pts.), which dropped a 5-2 decision in Ontario on Tuesday, finishes a five-game road swing before the AHL All-Star break with games in Henderson on Friday and Saturday. As they bus through southern California, perhaps there will be another one of those chats between Cronin and Galchenyuk.
“It’s been a great fit, and I’m learning a ton,” Galchenyuk said. “I definitely appreciate the time working with me and making me a better player.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.