MONTREAL, QC — Since his being drafted just over two weeks ago, much of the talk around Montreal’s future at the center position has been about Alex Galchenyuk. Rightfully so, since the young man has the potential to be an elite player at the NHL level someday. However, the hype around him has led to a disturbing trend among some fans on Twitter and on hockey forums around the internet: a total disregard for a promising 23-year old pivot already on the roster in Lars Eller.
It is true that many hoped for more than Eller’s 28 points in 79 games a year ago, but his production was hampered when the line he was most successful on – with Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn, the team’s second most used line over the course of the entire season – was disbanded due to injuries and eventually the Kostitsyn trade. The line Eller played on second most frequently last season? Centering Mike Blunden and Blake Geoffrion, two players likely to start the coming season in the American Hockey League. Under those circumstances, his 16 goals actually look like quite an accomplishment.
Eller brings a lot to the table. A 13th overall selection in 2007, he flashes hands that at times make him look like the best stickhandler on the team, has a solid frame which he uses to protect the puck, and is a responsible two-way player. His style isn’t unlike that of Peter Forsberg, though Eller lacks the vision and playmaking ability that made the Swede such a force offensively. Yet, while one portion of the fanbase clamoured for him to receive the same kind of opportunity as David Desharnais, being put between two legitimate top six wingers, others have seemingly moved on. I’ve seen it suggested in recent days that Eller be virtually dumped, traded for whatever assets Montreal may be able to pick-up, or else moved to wing, where he has looked out of place in the NHL.
Most who see his days with the team as numbered are looking to create space for Galchenyuk to make the club this Fall, feeling like another year in junior will not benefit him, and that he can help the team immediately. We won’t know until at least training camp – if not well beyond – how much Galchenyuk could contribute to the club this very season, but it should be pointed out that being sent back down for another season will certainly not hurt his development. His year would look like the following:
- Return to Sarnia, being the key cog in the team’s offense and playing without Nail Yakupov for the first time
- Play for Team USA at the World Junior Championships
- Help an underdog Sting team with a playoff push, or be dealt to a contender
- Should his junior season end early, join a deep Hamilton Bulldogs squad in the post-season to challenge for a Calder Cup
It doesn’t matter how highly regarded a prospect one is; that kind of a year won’t throw off anyone’s path towards the NHL, particularly when we’re talking about a player who played only eight games all of last season. There is no need to rush him to the big league. This isn’t a season where he is stepping in as the final piece to put together a contending club. I’m not suggesting the team be closed-minded – let him come to training camp and do his best to earn at least a 9-game tryout. But the club will have to be awfully certain that he will remain at an adequate level to hold down a top nine center job all season long, and that they aren’t wasting an asset in Eller, for him to remain up with the team. The worst thing that could happen – after a decision to keep him – would be for his play to trail off at around the 30- or 40-game mark, not unthinkable for a rookie who played so little last season. You can’t sit him in the press box. And you’ve already burned one year towards unrestricted free agency, plus a year of his reasonable entry-level contract.
But enough about Galchenyuk, on whom there will be much focus in September. This piece is about Eller and where his career is headed. Michel Therrien was pretty open in his initial press conference about planning to start out keeping Desharnais between Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty. If the Canadiens don’t add another forward via free agency or the trade market, this likely means Tomas Plekanec centering Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta as a second line. We’re then left with Travis Moen, Colby Armstrong, Brandon Prust, Scott Gomez, and perhaps one of Louis Leblanc, Brendan Gallagher, or Aaron Palushaj as wingers for Eller. Many have strung together a trio of Moen – Eller – Armstrong, in part due to a potential clash between the similar puck-carrying style of Eller and Gomez, and an uncertainty as to whether any of Leblanc, Gallagher, or Palushaj will be impressive enough to start the year with the Canadiens.
This scenario wouldn’t be an issue. If Armstrong stays healthy, it is a two-way, crash and bang line, that might be similar to the trio on which Eller was most effective last season. Speaking of that line, Andrei Kostitsyn remains an unrestricted free agent, and so perhaps repatriating him to join that line is something Marc Bergevin is still considering.
Other scenarios could include a good training camp from Scott Gomez, or a poor one from Rene Bourque. Having Gomez center Eller on a third line would seem like a mistake; forcing Eller into an uncomfortable position to accommodate a player who isn’t part of any long-term plans. However, Eller did have success playing on the wing on an offensive line at the World Championships last season, so giving him a look in a top 6 role with Plekanec and Gionta isn’t unthinkable.
A final possibility would be a less productive year from David Desharnais, since opposing defenses will now be keying on the small center from day one. Though he isn’t the guy you want battling along the boards, taking some responsibility away from him by shifting him to the wing might also open up a top 6 hole for Eller to fill.
If put in a situation to succeed, what might Eller become? Certainly the Forsberg comparison wasn’t meant to suggest he has similar upside. A more realistic comparison might be found on the Canadiens’ roster, as a bigger Tomas Plekanec type. Plekanec himself is considered by some a “poor-man’s” Pavel Datsyuk, which isn’t a bad model either, considering the soft and quick hands Eller has displayed, though again Datsyuk’s vision is far superior. Still, don’t think that Eller’s first two seasons at very young ages indicate he doesn’t have offensive potential close to a Plekanec’s. He simply is doing his learning, maturing, and strengthening at the NHL level where Datsyuk and Plekanec did it in other leagues. Here’s a chart to compare.
|Lars Eller||Tomas Plekanec||Pavel Datsyuk|
|1st Year in North America||Age 20||Age 20||Age 23|
|Age 20||7 GP – 2-0-2||AHL||Russia|
|Age 21||77 GP – 7-10-17||2 GP – 0-0-0||Russia|
|Age 22||79 GP – 16-12-28||Lockout (AHL)||Russia|
|Age 23||2012-13||67 GP – 9-20-29||70 GP – 11-24-35|
|Age 24||2013-14||81 GP – 20-27-47||64 GP – 12-39-51|
A big part of the Canadiens’ future may lie in the hands of Alex Galchenyuk, but it is for Lars Eller that this season must be a coming of age. Signed to a bargain $1.325M cap hit for each of the next two seasons, I expect a jump in production from Eller this year if put in the right situations, establishing him as a 40+ point potential third line guy, in line with the production of a Plekanec at age 24 or at least a Datsyuk at 23. If and when he achieves this, center depth of Galchenyuk – Plekanec – Eller (pending how Desharnais fares this season) for 2013-14 will be the most impressive looking group the Habs have had down the middle in quite some time.