Thursday, January 5, 2012
Every once in a while, even in the darkest of winters, we're gifted with a gem of a day. Out of the cold and gloom, the sun breaks through, the wind stops blowing and everything glistens with pristine perfection. For Habs fans, Lars Eller's performance against the Jets was one of those perfect days in the midst of a dark dreary winter of a hockey season.
Back in the 2007 season, I remember checking out some video and reading the scouting reports of prospects coming up for that year's NHL entry draft. Elite Prospects had this to say about Eller: "A very good all-round and skilled forward. Eller has quick feet, soft hands and a good work ethic. He is a skilled playmaker, but also a decent scorer. Works hard and is valuable in shorthanded situations. Quite a spectacular player with few weaknesses." In the second half of that season, his ranking rose from consideration as an early-to-mid second-round pick to making many scouts' top fifteen. I remember being really impressed by his video clips and thinking he'd be an ideal choice for a Habs team long deprived of big, skilled centremen.
On his draft day, it looked like the Habs would actually have the chance to land him. The L.A.Kings went off the board, picking Thomas Hickey fourth overall, which bumped all the higher-ranked prospects down. As the picks were announced and Eller remained unchosen, it seemed only the pressure to pick homegrown Angelo Esposito might sway the Habs away from calling Eller's name. When Trevor Timmins stepped up to the podium, dreams of the Canadiens finally getting that coveted centre bloomed to life, then quickly died like spring roses in an early frost, as the head scout chose American defenceman Ryan McDonagh instead. Eller went to the St.Louis Blues with the very next pick.
Flash forward to June of 2010, and McDonagh had become Rangers property in the Scott Gomez trade. Jaroslav Halak, hero of the most successful playoff performance Montreal had seen in nearly twenty years, was traded to the Blues for...Lars Eller. A lot of Canadiens fans bemoaned not only the loss of Halak, but the return as well. Critics thought Pierre Gauthier should have demanded a bigger name like T.J.Oshie, David Backes or David Perron. Eller, meanwhile, had played only seven NHL games as a callup in his first North American pro season.
Of course, now that reality has replaced the mad glory of that playoff run in 2010, it's apparent that the market for goalies wasn't that great that year. And, when level heads examine the situation, a guy like David Perron would have been much too high a price for the Blues to pay. Gauthier took a flyer on a prospect with great upside, which didn't hurt the Blues' roster as much. Now it's looking more and more as though the Canadiens probably won that trade.
Last night, Eller was nothing short of brilliant. Everything he touched turned into gold. He and his linemates, Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn, looked like three interlocking cogs in a well-oiled machine. Their passes connected with ease, their hits opened up space for each other and it all combined to give Eller the game of a lifetime. His extended first-star celebration and the pure jubilation that spawned it was just the shiny bow on an elegant gift.
Of course, one game, even a spectacular one, does not a career make. It doesn't even a season make. However, in Eller's case, the Jets game might be a notice to the rest of the league that the kid is beginning to fulfill the potential that had scouts drooling in 2007. When he first began with the Canadiens last year, he showed tantalizing glimpses of his ability to see the ice and move the puck. Once in a while, he'd use his body to protect it and make a really nice offensive play. Then he'd screw up his defensive assignment or take a dumb penalty and end up on the bench. Sometimes, fans wondered if the only reason he held a berth on the Habs roster at all was to allow Gauthier to save face over the Halak trade.
He really began to show his mettle in the playoffs last year. He had only two assists in seven games, but he was aggressive and strong on the puck and was a presence on the ice. One wonders what might have happened in that fateful Game Seven if Eller hadn't been playing with a separated shoulder that would require summer surgery. He began this season fresh out of rehab and took a couple of weeks to get up to speed. Still, his play wasn't as consistent as the coaches and fans would like to see.
Gradually, though, he tightened up defensively and he saw his ice time slowly increase, from an average of 11 minutes a game last year to 14:30 this season. In his first ten games after returning from injury, he had only a goal and an assist, but he was a solid plus-four. Jacques Martin began to entrust him with penalty-killing duty, at which he showed considerable skill. He now plays an average of 1:20 per game on the PK, second among centres only to Tomas Plekanec. Paired with Michael Cammalleri, he's been on the ice for only one short-handed goal against in 16 minutes of PK time. He's got two shorthanded goals and an assist.
Hindering his progression this season have been the team's injury problems and subsequent line shuffling, which mean he's played not less than 24 minutes and not more than 130 with eight different sets of linemates. That's not counting single-game experiments that didn't stick. If he's found a home with Moen and Kostitsyn (who, as a line, have only 24 seconds of PP time, by the way...Eller himself averaging only 32 power play seconds per game), then it'll be for the first time this season. Eller had chemistry with Kostitsyn late last season, and it looks like that may not have been a fluke.
Randy Cunneyworth seems to be good for Eller too. In the first three games under the new coach, Eller was -3 and saw his ice time drop to just 11 minutes a game. Finally, Cunneyworth made the young player a healthy scratch. In the four games since, Eller has five goals and seven points, and is +5, with only two penalty minutes. He's averaging nearly 18 minutes a game. His hugely improved points totals are attributable largely to that spectacular game against the Jets, but if better ice time and stable linemates, together with the trust of his coach, helped him produce that gem, perhaps it's the beginning of more good things for him.
The kind of game Eller played last night is the kind of game that can spark the confidence not only of the player, but the team. It's the kind of rare performance that can start something big enough to turn a season around. Maybe it'll work out that way. Or maybe it won't. Perhaps it will be nothing more than a ray of precious light in a very dark season. Even if it is, though, it has value. For one night, Lars Eller lifted the cloud of gloom hanging over the Canadiens and gave us a reason to really cheer for them again.
If it turns out that he can't inspire his teammates enough to save the season, he's given his fans a glimpse of the player he's capable of being. And that's a very special light indeed.
*photo by Yahoo! sports
Posted by J.T. at 11:35 AM