BROSSARD, Que. — Talk about a one-eighty.
“It would almost be weird to go back to centre,” Eller said on Friday. “I’m super comfortable there right now. I didn’t think it would be [like] this, you know, that I would like it that much. It took a bit of time, but I really enjoy playing there now.”
When Canadiens coach Michel Therrien made the decision over the summer to move Galchenyuk from left wing to centre, he contacted Eller and told him to prepare himself for a new role at wing.
Eller, who scored a career-high 16 goals in 2011-12, already has seven goals in Montreal’s first 27 games. The fact he’s been so productive so far, despite being limited to just a 35-second average on the power play, certainly lends credence to the belief he could be more productive from the wing.
Most importantly, from Therrien’s perspective, Eller hasn’t shirked his defensive responsibilities to pad his statistics.
“The last three weeks, I would say, Lars is playing some phenomenal hockey,” said Therrien. “His work ethic is perfect. He’s got a role that’s really important for us. He’s killing penalties; (on Thursday against Washington) we put him on the power play; he creates chances for (Galchenyuk). He’s playing really well and he’s taking care of himself. He cares about the team and he wants to make sure our team’s going to be successful.”
A goal in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Capitals gave Eller four points in his past five games. The chemistry between him, Galchenyuk and call-up Sven Andrighetto has been mounting, giving the Canadiens a stable and dependable balance behind co-leading scorers Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec, while providing a timely boost during Brendan Gallagher’s absence.
They vaunted his puck-protection skills, pointed to his underrated foot-speed, and they all mentioned how well he fits on the wing.
“We talk a lot,” said Galchenyuk. “We try to help each other out. In the last four years, we’ve played quite a bit together. We know how to play and how to be at our best. He’s fun to play with.
“He’s a very versatile player, and his experience [at centre] helps in the defensive zone.”
Therrien’s system has the first backchecker assume the responsibilities of playing down low with the defencemen in Montreal’s zone. Eller’s familiarity with that role as a long-time centre has helped his linemates stay on the plus-side of the plus/minus ledger (Galchenyuk and Andrighetto are a combined plus-9).
Eller believes his familiarity with Galchenyuk’s tendencies is making the game easier for both of them. He was quick to credit Therrien for keeping the two together through all 27 of Montreal’s games this season.
Now that he’s comfortable in his role, the test is to see whether or not Eller can sustain his strong play.
He collected only one goal through a 28-game stretch last season from Dec. 30 to March 5. A season prior, he went goal-less for 24 games between Jan. 4 and March 12.
“I’m not looking to prove anything to anyone else,” said Eller. “The challenge is for me to be consistent throughout the season or throughout a longer period of time. Everyone has dips; that’s been the challenge for me every season.
“But I like how it’s going so far.”