MONTREAL — When Canadiens forward Lars Eller started the season in January, he was about 10 to 12 pounds heavier by choice.
“It was my first summer in three years where I’ve been 100-per-cent healthy. So I made a big effort to get stronger this year,” the 6-foot-2 Eller said on Tuesday after practice.
“It’s been pretty strict in the kitchen and in the gym as well.”
The 23-year-old Dane worked with a Montreal-based strength and conditioning coach who drew up a supplement and meal plan for Eller as well as a workout regimen that he followed closely.
“It certainly gave me some good results,” said Eller, who notices the difference when he’s in the corners on the ice, battling for pucks.
More strength hasn’t come at the expense of speed.
“It’s a very common (misperception) that if you get bigger, you get slower,” Eller said.
“You can still put on muscle and be more explosive and actually get faster even though you get bigger. You won’t get slower.”
Canadiens captain Brian Gionta can see the difference in Eller, saying he’s stronger and more consistent in the battles along the walls.
“I think the biggest thing in him (is that) he’s developed physically as a player,” Gionta said. “He’s gotten older and stronger and he’s kind of come into his body.
“He’s a tough guy to play against. He’s strong on the puck. His offensive skills have always been there, so it’s a matter of learning the game and the differences between say junior, Europe. You need to keep things a lot more north-south because of the back pressure and backchecking in the league and he’s learned to deal with that.”
Eller has played well since an early season blip when he was scratched from the lineup for two games
“I feel good,” he said. “Especially when the team is winning, you feel good about that. A lot of times if you have a good team then you have good individuals, too.”
They often go hand in hand, he said.
There are a lot reasons, in Eller’s estimation, why the Canadiens are doing much better this season, although he doesn’t believe they were as bad as their record indicated last year when the Canadiens finished last in the Eastern Conference.
“But most of all everybody is hungry to prove that we’re a winning team,” Eller said.
“Everybody is playing the system for 60 minutes and everybody’s doing it for the right reason. That’s some of the key components.”
The St. Louis Blues drafted Eller 13th overall in 2007. The Canadiens acquired him in 2010 as part of the trade that sent goaltender Jaroslav Halak to the Blues.
At training camp in mid-January, coach Michel Therrien said Eller was at a stage where he’s got to take another step in his career — that he expected him to take his game to another level. Then early in the season, Therrien scratched Eller from the lineup twice, wanting him to play with more grit and heart.
“He’s doing a good job,” Therrien said after Wednesday’s morning skate. “Since he’s back in the lineup ... he competes a lot harder and this is what we were asking of him.
“He’s an important player in the success that we’ve had. And the way that he’s competing, this is how he’s going to be successful.
“This is the kind of message that we sent to him early in the season. But credit to him, he reacted the right way.”
“You want to make sure that he’s playing hard. His compete level has got to be there. And he’s having fun to play that type of game.”
Eller acknowledged last month he was steamed about being scratched —“every player should be, because you want to be on the ice” — but you try to channel that energy into the next game, he said. He also told reporters that at some point in your career you have to define what kind of player you’re going to be.
For Eller, who has also worked with a sports psychologist, it means working to become a versatile player like teammate Tomas Plekanec, who can play in every situation.
Eller’s faceoff percentage was nearly 50 per cent going into Wednesday’s game against the Ottawa Senators.
“I think it was over 50 until two games ago,” he said.
“It’s something you always work on, but a lot of it is just experience in the league, more games, more experience means a lot in the faceoff circle, I think. So that’s the key.”
Asked if there were goals he set for himself last summer, such as improving one area of his game in particular, Eller responded: “I wanted to improve everything, but the baseline is being a better player at year’s end than you are at (the) beginning.”
It’s also to feel that you’ve taken another step, taken on more responsibility, “and growing as a person and as a player,” he said.
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