Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Eller He Will

Sometime back in the long, long summer of Habs fans' most recent discontent, I thought about compiling a top ten of the best moments from last season. It wasn't easy. It was, after all, a desperately depressing year. Still, after some thought, I did come up with ten small things we could take to heart from 2011-12. It never got published because, in the end, I felt celebrating just ten things in a wasteland of a season seemed a little hopeless. For what it's worth, though, number three in that top ten was Lars Eller's four-goal night.

That was such fun for fans. It was one of those nights when potential became reality for one sparkling game. Even better was Eller's over-the-top, exuberant basking in the glow of the Bell Centre crowd after his first-star selection. The quiet, obliging Dane who lived mostly in the shadow of his more in-your-face teammates knew enough to let loose and celebrate his moment in the sun. The guys in the room still poke fun at it, but that's because they like Eller and it certainly was an occasion to remember. It was also an occasion to take notice.

Eller was a first-round pick in the same 2007 draft as Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban. He came with a scouting report that lauded him as a fine skater, a "mature two-way player with a fine shot and above-average playmaking skills." The fact that his first-round selection wasn't a surprise speaks for itself. When the Habs traded Jaro Halak for Eller, his stock was still high as a promising prospect. Canadiens fans in favour of the trade saw him as a future Tomas Plekanec, but bigger.

Now, almost three years later, he finds himself stuck on third or fourth lines most of the time, averaging only about 12-13 minutes of ice time per game. This season, he's getting about a minute of PP time per game, but in the two years previous, his average time on the PP was 25 seconds a night.  He, as so many prospects before him, fell into a situation early in his NHL career in which he was forced to work his way up the lineup with limited minutes and limited linemates. Now, at 23, he's at a make-or-break point in his career. Either he breaks through or he'll end up pigeon-holed as a big, low-scoring journeyman with wasted potential. Michel Therrien has pretty much confirmed that, saying he wants more from Eller; that it's time for him to take the next step.

To make that happen, Eller now needs better linemates and better minutes. The problem is, those things aren't readily available unless there's an injury or a slump, neither of which is desirable. He also needs time on the PP and a chance to play his natural centre position with players who can finish. This week, Therrien has decided to switch things up, mainly because of the lack of execution of last year's first line. David Desharnais and the foggy Erik Cole will now be playing with Brandon Prust, while Max Pacioretty has moved to play with the Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. Eller, once again, has been bypassed for ice time and linemates, this time by the rookie Galchenyuk. And Desharnais continues to hold a centre spot ahead of Eller while not really producing.

An interesting comparison for Eller is teammate Pacioretty. His first two seasons in Montreal, totalling 34 and 52 games, resulted in 11 and 14 points respectively. In the first season, he averaged about 12-13 minutes per game, got a minute a night on the PP and spent most of his shifts with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev. The second year, 2009-2010, he got 30 seconds a game on the PP and skated mostly with Travis Moen and Glen Metropolit. In other words, he had an Eller season. Unsurprisingly, his PPG total dropped from 0.32 in the first year, to 0.26 in the second. There was a lot of talk at the time about Pacioretty being another Habs first-round bust. It didn't help when he started the following year in Hamilton and didn't get called up until Christmas. Yet, given a chance to build up some confidence with the Bulldogs and a place in the top-six when recalled to Montreal, Pacioretty blossomed and became the key component of the Habs youth movement we see today.

The clock is ticking for Lars Eller. If a guy hasn't made a solid impact on an NHL roster by 24 or 25, he starts to look like trade bait. I think Eller's got too much ability to be allowed to drift away. It would be similar to having let Pacioretty go two years ago. It's fine then, for Therrien to say he wants more from Eller, but he's got to do his part as well. He has to put Eller in a position to succeed and let the player do the rest. We've seen him show signs of real ability. It was one of the very few high points from the 2011-12 Habs lost season.


zip by said...

Right on JT - how Therrien handles this will be a good measure of his ability as a coach. If things continue as they have been so far this season - it will be necessary to demote or sit Desharnais in favour of Eller, if only to see what the latter will accomplish. This will be difficult in an environment where Desharnais is a home grown hero. Staying tuned......

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid we will be talking about Eller's potential for another couple of years...

Steve said...

Everyone raves about the little bits of special Galyenchuk displays, Eller does the same and it seems no one notices

moeman said...

Well, Eller bagged 2 excellent points tonight. Hopefully the CoaCH takes it for what it is worth. A lot.

Anonymous said...

My concern is that we will absolutely see Eller realize his full potential but it will be as a member of some other successful team in the NHL. That will be due in large part to the preconceived notions of yet another dogmatic/myopic coach who is too stubborn to change his opinions. I sincerely hope that Marc Bergevin has the good sense to do what's right for his team and make sure that doesn't happen.

dra58 said...

Excellant article as always and I for one am a huge fan of Eller's. His upside is huge but the big problem I see is his last name isn't french. He has first round pedigree draft pick status and as we can all see he has talent but it appears wasted in his current role. He started to make a little noise earlier when Patches was out on the "big" line so put him back there with Cole and DD but this time make him the center and DD the wingman. He really needs line mates that can keep up with him and as many said the last year plus about Pleks he suffered because he had no line mates so give Eller a chance. He has done wonders thus far with little to no supporting cast so give him some and time to create chemistry with them before passing judgement. As always an interesting well thought out story.

raj said...

I also am a huge fan of Eller's.

I'm no hockey coach nor am I head of scouting for an NHL team but I have to ask someone who knows more than I: Why do some NHL hockey coaches have to force a player to fit some mold he might not be entirely suited to and than humiliate him publicly (by benching him or calling him out in the press) when he makes errors while he learns his role? (H'mm one could say the same of a certain exuberant defenseman of Caribbean ancestry on the Habs. Hint: Frankie the Bull is not exuberant).

To me, Eller is a scorer. Yet Jacques Martin, Randy Cunneyworth and now Michel Therrien seem to think he's some kind of defensive checking center. To his credit, he has done very well at that, but as the 4-goal game proves, he has way more to offer. Why can't he be given some decent wingers? When he had AK46 and Louis Leblanc as linemates, there was some serious skill on display -- for which Eller has been rewarded with Moen and Armstrong as linemates this season. When he DID play with DD and Cole a few games ago (and did well), he was promptly demoted. He has plenty of heart, having played against the Bruins in the playoffs 2 seasons ago with a separated shoulder. He hasn't complained in the press, he shows up even earlier at practice than Tomas Plekanec and he even accepted a way-below-market value contract to prove he enjoys Montreal and wants to establish himself playing for the Habs.

The way Eller has been managed is SO old school and reminiscent of John Leclair who, when asked what was the difference between Philly and Montreal, apparently said that in Montreal he would be demoted to the 4th line if he made a mistake, whereas in Philly, he was told he would have 20 games with his linemates to show what they could do as a unit. Randy Cunneyworth even sat Eller late in that 4-goal game because it would have been "greedy" had he scored 5. And don't get me started on the coaching staff and Subban.

We need some enlightened coaching in the NHL. I hoped Therrien would be better than his 2 immediate predecessors, but I'm not certain he is. Notwithstanding his recent remarks, his handling of Eller (whom he saw a lot of as an analyst on L'Antichambre, and therefore knew) disturbs me. Thrown in how he has treated Subban (who got less ice time last night than Frankie the Bull) and I am worried (as Anon said earlier) that in a couple of seasons, we'll see Eller and Subban play very well indeed -- for some other NHL team.

Anonymous said...

Eller can do some good things with the puck, I specially like how he can move it up with speed and assurance when mid-ice transition occurs, I also like how he can control it for extended period when in thigh space along the board in the offensive zone.... he also proved last season that he can put some in the net too.

Offensivelly speaking I wish he had something else in his game that could be relied upon in order for him to be another effective clog to our PP situations or our top two lines.

His shots, vision/playmaking habilities, shear net presence or overall decision making are not at the level needed right now in order to be an effective linemate when facing against the best that the opposition has to offer..... once traded he could had benefited from an extra year in the AHL in order to developped or refined one of those aspects to the next level but Gauthier decided otherwise.

As of today in the NHL I consider him a talented depth guy and I am glad to have him in there with our team this year, I have no complain about how the roster is being used by our coaches and considering the positive performances of our team
(8-4-1) I am probably right about it.