On the opening night of the Montreal Canadiens 2013/14 season, lost amidst the calamity of the George Parros injury and the subsequent annual hand wringing about the merits of fighting in hockey, was the brilliant play of Canadiens centreman Lars Eller, who to many observers was the best player on the ice for either team.
Eller played a total of 16 minutes, and he notched three points (two goals and an assist). He used his 6’2 frame to his advantage, shielding the puck on offensive rushes, and it allowed him to create space for linemates Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. His deft pass to Gallagher put the Canadiens up 2-1 in the first period.
Eller also fired six shots at the Maple Leafs goal, and appeared to create chances in the majority of his 24 shifts. On his second goal of the game, Eller niftily evades Leafs defenseman, Jake Gardiner, and appears fearless upon driving to the net.
(In a cruel twist of fate in the context of the Parros injury, Eller’s last meaningful game at the Bell Centre ended in horror, as he was hit hard mid-ice by Senators forward Eric Gryba during the club’s first round playoff series. He laid on the ice in a pool of blood before being carried off on a stretcher. Eller’s season was ended with a concussion and facial lacerations).
Since being acquired in the summer 2010 from the St. Louis Blues, as part of the Jaroslav Halak trade, the big Danish centre has continued to show a gradual and constant improvement, and is now proving worthy of the reasons the Blues selected him with the 13th overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. With his performance last night, the question being asked by many observers of the Canadiens is what type of player will Eller be once he hits his peak?
Upon reading scouting reports from Eller before his 2007 draft, it appears that he was initially projected to be a good defensive centre, with second line potential. During his draft year, the Dane played in the top Swedish junior league, and helped his team Frolunda to win a league championship. He was reported to be one of the top defensive forwards in the league, and posted 39 points in 55 games. He spent another two seasons in Sweden, one with the Frolunda junior team, the other with the senior team before coming to North America. Eller saw his first NHL action a full two years after being drafted, however spent the majority of his first season in North America in the American Hockey League with the Peoria Rivermen.
In his first season with the Canadiens in 2010-11, Eller was largely sheltered by the conservative bench boss, Jacques Martin. It took him until 24 November to notch his first goal as a Montreal player, and at the end of the season his point total of 17 points in 77 games likely fell short of his expectations. Yet, for those that watched Eller progress throughout the course of that season, they witnessed a player that grew out of his raw, timid shell, and one that started to use his size to his advantage. We also started to see a little bit of attitude in Eller. The future looked bright.
Unfortunately, Eller’s training schedule in the summer of 2011 was hampered by a shoulder injury suffered at the end of the season. The 2011-12 season proved disastrous for the Canadiens, with injuries to key players, and the eventual firing of Jacques Martin. Eller again demonstrated some small steps from his first season in Montreal, and in the end scored 28 points over the course of the year. But, there were particular nights during that season where the young centre used his size, skill and took over hockey games. The problem was that Eller was still young, and thus inconsistent. He would show excellence on one shift, but those moments were fleeting. The best example of Eller taking over a game was in January 2012, in a game at the Bell Centre against the Winnipeg Jets where he scored an incredible four goals.
Last season, during the lockout shortened year, Eller started to get more ice time and defensive responsibilty from new coach Michel Therrien. He appeared much more confident with the physical nature of the game, and by season’s end had recorded 30 points in 46 games. However, those that watched Eller closely saw the flashes of him being the best Canadiens forward more regularly. Last season, he recorded 3 three-point games, 7 two-point games, and on those nights, his size and skill proved difficult for opposition defenders to handle. His consistency again remained the issue though, with 23 of his 30 points coming via these 10 multi-point games.
This summer, Eller had a full summer of training in Montreal and bulked up from 201 to 220 lbs. If last night is a glimpse, his increased muscle and fitness will serve him well, and will hopefully give him the ability to have more sustained periods of strong performance.
Having watched Eller closely since his arrival in Montreal, I have been quite interested in his development. He appears to have a terrific work ethic, and takes pride in his training. After his draft, Eller was projected by many scouts to be a two-way, second line centre at best. However, given his size, skill and ability to play at both ends, Lars Eller has the potential to be the best Canadiens forward this season as the team waits for the ongoing development of Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Should he find the consistency in his game this year, he will be a top forward and will be a major piece for the club down the road. The Canadiens ultimately hope that Eller and Alex Galchenyuk form a one-two punch down the middle in the years to come. It will be fascinating to see if Eller can live up to those raised expectations.
– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada