MONTREAL, QC. — While you may not remember exactly what happened on June 17th 2010, if you ask a Habs fan they’ll tell you as if it were yesterday.
The Montreal Canadiens announced that day they had traded playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues, certifying Carey Price as the Habs’ starting goaltender for the present and future. From Ottawa, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau said “What? Halak for two hockey sticks and a bag of magic beans?”
For most Habs fans, the deal is a vivid memory for many reasons. And as long as Lars Eller remains with the club, the Habs faithful will continue to remember.
In exchange for Halak, the Habs acquired Eller along with Ian Schultz. Schultz failed to make an impression in Montreal and following a couple of sub-par seasons with the Hamilton Bulldogs, he now plays in the East Coast Hockey League. Yet Eller, who former head coach Jacques Martin once compared to Jordan Staal, is in his fifth season in Montreal.
Five years after his breakthrough season with the Habs, however, Halak has since been a vagabond netminder. Halak has since played with two other clubs, the Washington Capitals and his current team the New York Islanders. He was pushed out of St. Louis due to being a part of a three-headed goaltending monster with Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. Halak then was traded in 2014 by the Blues to the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster that saw Ryan Miller going the other way. Although he never played a game with the Sabres, Halak was later shipped at the trade deadline that season for Michael Neuvirth. Following a disappointing stint with the Capitals, Halak has since found a home with the Islanders in 2015 and has contributed to their success this season.
Meanwhile, since being acquired for Halak, Eller has yet to reach anywhere near a Jordan Staal comparison. Although he has developed well into a defensive third line centre, Eller has never had more than 30 points in a season and carries a $3.5-million cap hit. Albeit this is a low scoring year for the NHL, Eller has been inconsistent which had him scratched from the lineup at times. Eller even lost a linemate this year, having seen Jiri Sekac traded to the Anaheim Ducks for Devante Smith-Pelly. Sekac was an intriguing signing for the Habs this past off-season, but played only 50 career games with the Canadiens. At the time of the trade with the Ducks, Sekac had one more point than Eller’s 14. The speedy winger has since put up seven points in 18 games with the Ducks.
With Sekac having been moved on February 24, 2015, there were still days remaining before the league’s trade deadline. While Bergevin isn’t the type to divulge his trading block, Eller certainly had to be feeling some pressure to improve his game. The Habs played the St. Louis Blues that night, Eller’s former team, and the 25 year old proved his worth in a convincing 5-2 victory for the blue-blanc-et-rouge. Eller recorded his eighth assist of the season that night and had a plus-3 rating. This was the sign of improvement the Habs brass were hoping to see in Eller and the Danish forward rose to the challenge.
Eller now has 13 goals and 25 points on the season, including three points in his last five games. He survived the trade deadline and remains a member of the Montreal Canadiens. The wake-up call or scare, whichever it may be, seems to have done the trick and Eller is responding well with his recent play.
When asked about Lars Eller, Habs general manager mentioned that he strongly believes Eller is the type of player that gets a team not just to the playoffs, but through the playoffs. Look no further than Game 1 against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals last summer for an example. With the Rangers leading 7-1 with just under five minutes to play in the match, Eller flashed his brilliance in one single, individual effort for the ages. Eller finished the playoffs as a pleasant surprise for the Habs with 13 points in 17 games.
After signing a four year extension with a cap hit of $3.5-million, Eller is consistently putting up more than 20 points a season as a third line center. Considering the money being shelled out nowadays in the NHL, Eller’s contract isn’t outrageous and has long-term benefits. For one, Eller has the same cap hit as teammate David Desharnais and both earn just $700-thousand more than a heart-and-soul player in Brandon Prust. Although those contracts seem a bit high, players are earning more than ever before, and the Habs are blessed with affordable assets.
While Bergevin may not have played a part in the Halak trade, he’s shown admiration for its return. Drafted 13th overall in 2007 by the Blues, Eller is still only 25-years-old and growing more and more comfortably in his role. Perhaps the best trade that came from Pierre Gauthier’s horrid regime is Lars Eller or, as the fans referred to him on June 17th, 2010, “Who”? While he may not reach Jordan Staal recognition, Eller and his style is best compared with Arizona Coyotes forward Martin Hanzal. Eller, while not lighting the lamp offensively, is a solid defensive center and plays his role effectively for the Habs. Developing players for specific team roles takes time, which is why the Canadiens will continue to reap their rewards for gambling with Eller.
Close to five years later, the Habs are clear winners of their trade and the fond memories of Halak have been forgotten. A tantalizing forward with potential for spending many years to come with the Habs, Eller still has much to prove. Certainly, the Habs maximized the value of Halak at the right time, unfortunately occurring after his best season with the team. While some players are given time during the season to redeem themselves (see Rene Bourque), Eller must consider himself lucky enough to remain a Hab. The fans want to see more from Eller, but their expectations are somewhat eased by his promising development. That is, if the Dane can prove he’s a player capable of matching previous playoff success.