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


Anvilcloud said...

Nice piece. Thanks for the celebration link. I had missed it because CTV cuts away so promptly. Great stuff.

Pisano said...

Wow! What a game! I will readily admit to being one of the fans who was, shall we say, disgruntled with the Halak trade. I wanted an NHL ready player, a Lars Eller and a pick. However, what is done is done and last night was a special game.

It appears to me that Cunneyworth is removing the shackles. Players are responding. Gauthier put Cunneyworth in a horrible position, some actually expecting change 8 hours after Martin was fired.

Moen was great, Kostitsyn is a beast and Eller is the center that makes the players on his wings better. Les Canadiens now have a legitimate 3rd line.

It will take a little time to un-Martin the team but with the light schedule, Cunneyworth will continue to coach and we, as fans, will benefit, as the team will.

Next season, Cunneyworth will be a coach in the NHL, no doubt about it.

I believe that les Canadiens and their fans will be experiencing many more games, perhaps not quite as spectacular as last night, but entertaining just the same, from Mr. Eller and his teammates...

MC said...

The difference between how Cunneyworth handled Eller and how JM handled him is subtle but significant: after holding Eller accountable for poor play by reduction of ice time and being removed from the lineup, Cunneyworth then challenged him by putting him on the first line with the team's best wingers. The message was clear: if you continue to mess up you will be in the press box, but I BELIEVE in you! And here is an opportunity to show your talent. That kind of vote of confidence from a coach can mean everything to a young player's confidence. JM was too quick to punish young players. He was also too risk adverse to give young players so much responsibility.

Andre Kostitsyn also had an incredible game. It was his forecheck that set up the first Eller goal, and his breakaway pass that set up the penalty shot. Not to mention the highlight reel assist. He is another player looking good under Cunneyworth. His chemistry with Eller is amazing. They need to sign him NOW for this reason alone.

punkster said...

Now this is an excellent read. The whole 2007 draft story sets the stage so well. Thanks!

DT said...

Gotta give credit to PG for bringing in Eller. I liked this kid from day one and after his celebration last night, like him even more! Not only can he play hockey really well, he sure can play to the crowd. What character! What pride! We will see more nights like that from him. (PG: please sign AK soon.)

V said...

Nice post JT. A bright light in its own right.

Raj said...

Great game for the young man. It was heart-warming to see how happy he was when he scored, and also afterwards during the first-star celebration. We can't reproach him about his goal celebrations, either, unlike, shall we say, a certain defenceman? In light of your recent column, it's reasonable to point out that Eller has always conducted himself with class and is way more articulate more than his age, or his speaking Danish as his first language, would predict. I feel he's a FHC (future Habs captain) in the Koivu mold. Now, if he would only learn French...but perhaps he already is, I wouldn't put it past him.

I've been on record as defending JM as coach. But I agree that he did seem to shackle Eller more than was necessary, even saying in a press conference that he wasn't a scorer, and should learn to play like Dave Bolland in Chicago (perhaps that's the supreme compliment JM could pay anybody, I don't know). You could tell when Eller was interviewed later that those remarks stung -- Eller doesn't need to be motivated by having the coach disparage him publicly, and seemed visibly discouraged. (I also couldn't get JM saying AK was playing well early last year because it was a contract year for him). But I suppose no-one's perfect and no doubt we'll all be on Cunneyworth's case soon enough. As you said, we'll enjoy the moment -- and boy, was it magical.

DKerr said...


I remember that draft as the draft where it seemed the TV guys were selling us on the Habs taking Esposito. Even after taking McDonaugh and watching Esposito slide further down, the talk became that they might get him with their second first rounder. Luckliy for us, he was taken by Pittsburgh and we grabbed Pacioretty with our 2nd first round pick. I recently saw that Esposito had been called up to the AHL from and ECHL team.

I understand the need for the locals to have a homegrown guy, but obviously the scouts saw something in Esposito that did not translate well. I bring this up because I was hoping that the Habs would take Krieder instead of Leblanc. It might have been a disaster not to take Leblanc with the draft being held in Montreal. I am thankful that he looks like a good young player, but I really think that big, skating forward (Krieder) might be a better NHLer. BTW, the Rangers took Krieder with the very next pick. Hence, my roundabout connection to your great piece on Eller being drafted right after McDonagh.

Anonymous said...

Great post JT. I too was disappointed with the return from the Halak trade. I just didn't feel like Gauthier got enough - especially in light of rumors that the Sharks were offering Logan Couture, and how this past season, McPhee got a possible lottery pick for Semyon Varlamov, of all people. If even an extra 2nd round pick had been snagged, I would have been happy. If I do have one criticism of Gauthier, it's that he never seems to get full value in the trades he makes (just once, I'd like to see him pull off an outright steal).

But one thing's for sure, Eller has turned out better than we all initially thought, and that was a magical night indeed.


moeman said...

Great read about a great kid.

Steve said...

Fantastic read, thanks JT

Anonymous said...

Spectac-ELLER ! Love it!

dusty said...

Thanks for the inside information on the draft and the celebration link. The ovation was great.

I was so happy to see smiles on the Habs bench. I can only imagine the misery that the players have been experiencing this season. I hope that they can go on a bit of streak at home. Cunneyworth deserves some wins as he is doing a good job.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Personnaly, I've liked that trade for a while and Eller is my favorite player so I was really happy about all his hard work this season paying off.

Even as a huge fan, I can understand why people thought we didn't get enough value at the time of the trade, after all a prospect is kind of a lottery ticket and Oshie, Berglund or Perron who were bigger names and already known would have been more easily accepted as a return.

And I know some people were dissatisfied with Lars's rookie season but let's not forget he didn't get the same role as any of those guys in his first year since St-Louis was a rebuilding team for a while and those team tend to give rookie top 6 roles.

Getting Perron (or Oshie or...)would have made people more happy then but in the end I think we got the guy with the most upside out of them (with the exception of Pietrangelo who's a Dman.

So basically, getting Perron in return may have felt like a much bigger return at the time but in the long run I think Eller was the right choice. He's got all of Plekanec's qualities (including the dedication to get better)+size and better strenght+stickhandling+better puck protection. If he reaches his ceilling, we'll have one hell of a player.