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.