MONTREAL — From his first shift against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre last week, it was obvious that something was up with Lars Eller.
Here was this tall, smooth-skating Dane, the one whose performance hadn’t quite caught up to his talent in the past, dominating from one end of the ice to the other, checking, passing, battling for pucks, scoring. If not for the colour of the uniform and the number, you might have thought you were watching Evgeni Malkin out there — another tall, strong elite player.
Was it an illusion? A one-off? Or an indication that a player whose improvement has come in steady increments so far has made a quantum leap toward the upper levels of the NHL?
After watching Eller deliver essentially the same performance against the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday night, you have to lean to the view that we are seeing the emergence of a star player who is capable of becoming that elusive big, talented offensive centre the Canadiens have been looking for at least since Vincent Damphousse held down the job.
The Canadiens begin their Canada West tour in Calgary Wednesday with two points in the bank, thanks mainly to the efforts of Eller and his linemates, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, who have both picked up right where they left off last spring.
But it’s Eller’s play that has shifted into overdrive. Even during his first season with the Habs, when you watched Eller, it was all there: the speed, the intelligence, the playmaking ability. I recall a brilliant flip pass to a streaking winger 20 feet ahead, one of those plays when you mutter “whoa!” and make a mental note to watch this guy in the future — although I can’t recall the game, the date or the lucky recipient of that pass.
Until late last season, the whole with Eller always seemed less than the sum of its parts. He looked like an 80-point guy on the ice, but he was racking up a mere 17 points, then 28, then 30 during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign.
By the time the playoffs started last spring, however, Eller might already have been the Canadiens’ best forward. That’s what made Eric Gryba’s headhunting hit on Eller in Game 1 of the Ottawa playoff series so devastating: A healthy Eller might have had a huge impact on that series. Without him, the Canadiens were simply overwhelmed by a better Ottawa team.
If you thought the Gryba hit might have made Eller gun-shy, you were wrong. He has come back stronger and tougher than ever, shedding checkers like King Kong shrugging off helicopters and driving hard to the net. Don’t let the choirboy looks deceive you: like his linemates, Gallagher and Galchenyuk, Eller is far more rugged than he looks.
Eller’s ascendance changes the entire dynamic of this team. If he can emerge as a dominating offensive centre, it alters the whole depth chart, makes it much harder for opposing coaches to game-plan for a team with more lines that can hurt you — and creates some welcome headaches for Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien. And when Galenchyuk makes the anticipated shift to centre ice himself, this team should have one of the key ingredients you need to challenge for a Stanley Cup: strength up the middle.
It didn’t appear so at the time, but it’s now obvious that former Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier got it right when he dealt Jaroslav Halak for Eller and tough-guy Ian Schultz, last seen with the San Francisco Bulls in the ECHL. Forget Schultz: the deal was Halak for Eller, and right now it isn’t looking too shabby for either the Blues or the Habs. St. Louis got a superior goaltender (at least when Halak is healthy) and Montreal got a centreman who is now the toast of the town.
In addition to hard work and brains, you need luck to succeed in the very tough business of the NHL. You need to have that 147th pick make a run at the Calder Trophy, you need to get it exactly right if you get to pick third overall — and if you deal a premier goaltender for a prospect, you need that prospect to become something special.
Sometimes, you also need to be lucky enough not to make a deal you were trying to make: Canadiens fans should have been cheering Vincent Lecavalier rather than booing him Saturday night, because had Bergevin signed Lecavalier, it would have cut radically into the minutes available for Eller — who at this point might already be a better player than the Flyers veteran.
Eller was drafted 13th overall back in 2007 by a St. Louis organization that was clearly thinking outside the box — drafting a Dane, of all things. He had a strong season with the Peoria Rivermen and a cup of coffee with the Blues under his belt when Gauthier took a bit of a flyer by dealing Halak for him.
Now, it would appear, young M. Eller is on the cusp of taking it to another level. Obviously, it’s only two games into the season. We’ll know more after the coming four-game western swing, more still when we’re 20 games into this season and the shakedown cruise is over.
We’ll also know more about Michael Bournival, who was more noticeable in six minutes and change on the ice than David Desharnais was in more than double the time Saturday night. Bournival showed that he can win a key faceoff, skate, hit, block shots and carry the game to his opponents, building on a strong training camp to strengthen his claim to a spot on the Canadiens roster.
All in all, despite the horrifying injury to George Parros, it has been a strong start to the season for the Canadiens, thanks in large part to a line so young, they could share one razor for an entire season.
Last season, it was P.K. Subban’s turn to soar. Off the beginning of this season, it looks like Eller Time.
Heroes: Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, George Parros, Michael Bournival, Mikhail Grabovski, Josh Neiswander, Sonny Gray, Stephen Vogt, Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Andrew McCutcheon, Terry Francona, Michel Therrien &&&& last but not least, Lars Eller.
Zeros: Alex Rodriguez, Colton Orr, Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Randy Carlyle, Don Cherry, Jack Clark, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Ted Cruz, John Boehner, the Koch brothers, linesmen who refuse to drop the #&*$%&@# puck, Claude Brochu, David Samson &&&& last and least, Jeffrey Loria.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
Canadiens forward Lars Eller takes part in a practice at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard near Montreal Friday, October 4, 2013 as the team prepared for Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Bell Centre.
Photograph by: John Kenney, THE GAZETTE