Installment No. 13 of our 25 Montreal Canadiens in 25 days series focuses on the 13th overall selection from the 2007 NHL Draft.
Lars Eller has all the tools to become a scorer in the NHL. He’s big, strong and he has much better offensive instincts than people give him credit for. He’s as good at carrying the puck as he is at chasing it down, and he works as well along the boards as he does in front of the net.
But confidence is king and Eller’s has been far too fragile for Canadiens coach Michel Therrien to completely trust him as a top centre.
It’s perplexing how long it takes Eller to rebuild his self-esteem and break out of funks – he had a 24-game stretch without a goal in the 2013-14 season and scored just once over a 29-game slump during the 2014-15 season. You could cite his negligible power play role as an explanation, as Eller has averaged just 47 seconds per game with the man-advantage over the past two seasons. You could also point to Montreal’s reliance on him for defensive zone starts and that he’s rarely used with point producers.
But there’s more to it than that.
Eller simply doesn’t have a history of being a prolific scorer. The last time he managed more than 20 goals in a season was as a 16-year-old in his native Denmark.
However, Eller does have pedigree as a shutdown centre, and that’s where he’s made his mark with the Canadiens. His defensive acumen, consistency in the faceoff circle and efficiency in clearing the zone make him a valuable piece of the puzzle in Montreal.
Acquired: Trade (2010) for goaltender Jaroslav Halak
Contract status: 4 years, $3.5M AAV (expires 2018)
2014-15 Stats: 77 GP | 15 G | 12 A | 27 P | 15:21 TOI | 47.5 CF%
Career stats: 363 GP | 60 G | 70 A | 130 P | 14:08 TOI | 49.6 CF%
The book on 2014-15:
You can’t help but think of what could’ve been for Eller had his production not lagged for so long during the middle portion of the 2014-15 season.
Eller was used mostly between rookie Jiri Sekac and Brandon Prust through the first half of the season and scored about half of his points there. But when his production started to wane, there was plenty of speculation Eller would be traded at the deadline. When that didn’t come to pass, he settled down again and hit his stride.
When you consider who his linemates were at the start of the season, and that he was used so sparingly on the power play, it’s perfectly understandable how he finished with his lowest assist total in three seasons.
Meanwhile, nearly half of Eller’s goals held up as game-winners, placing him second in the category on the Canadiens behind only Max Pacioretty (10).
Considering Eller led Montreal’s forward group with 13 points in 17 Stanley Cup playoff games in 2014, there was hope he could do some post-season damage again in 2015.
But like Montreal’s other centres, Eller fell short of expectations, posting just one goal and two assists in 12 playoff games.
Eller spent a fair portion of his summer in Montreal.
When he wasn’t training, he was hosting his hockey playing brothers Michael and Mads.
Eller probably won’t have much opportunity to move up in the lineup this season, but for the first time in three years, he isn’t likely to be moved to the wing for an extended period.
With Alex Galchenyuk and Tomas Plekanec locked in at centre, and with David Desharnais incapable of taking on heavy defensive responsibilities, stability in the third-line centre spot would offer Eller a platform to regularly produce. Having Zack Kassian ride shotgun on his line for a fair portion of the season would also help him.
But nothing is a given.
If the Canadiens prefer to keep Desharnais at centre, Plekanec would be pushed to the third line shutdown role, and that would make Eller a realistic trade candidate.
If Eller’s going to secure his position, he’ll have to find a level of consistency he hasn’t yet shown in Montreal. There’s every reason to believe he can do it, and if he does, the Canadiens will be much stronger up the middle than they’ve been in a long time.