Adjusting Expectations for Lars Eller

Lars Eller has been a polarizing player for Montreal Canadiens fans. When you look at Eller on the surface, he is a big defensive center who does a lot of good things for the team. On the other hand, there is the feeling he has more to give as a player. In interviews, Eller gives off the impression he wants a bigger role with Montreal but how much more does he have to give? His defensive game continues to improve, though his offense has stagnated a bit. Eller’s play the past few seasons has gone from a young player with potential to a specific role and it’s time to accept the reality of his position.

Where does Lars Eller belong?

Early on last season, Eller looked good for a short period with Jiri Sekac and Brandon Prust but it didn’t last. Sekac is talented but he struggled in his rookie season before being traded to Anaheim for Devante Smith-Pelly. Prust can play decently on the third line for spurts but is ultimately a fourth liner. Prust has the hustle and toughness but doesn’t have the speed or the hands to be consistently involved in plays.

Eller thrives during the rare opportunities of centering Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher but once that line is broken up, Eller’s production suffers. It is a reasonable request for fans to want to see Eller move up onto a scoring line after seeing him with Galchenyuk and Gallagher but the room just isn’t there for Eller to move up as a centre. He struggles to play the wing and many will blame David Desharnais for taking away opportunities. The narrative of Desharnais being the number one centre undeservedly has been beaten to death but the fact is Eller is unlikely to see top six minutes for the foreseeable future.

It is already an issue in getting Galchenyuk into the centre ice position and he is pegged to be a top two offensive centre if and when he makes the shift. Tomas Plekanec still has plenty of hockey left in front of him and he is currently Montreal’s best centre. He is still Montreal’s top centre defensively (although Eller is a very close second) and offensively still puts up the better numbers. He is locked in as a top two guy and deservedly so.

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The current situation

No doubt Eller has had the shorter end of the stick when it comes to linemates. While Desharnais has had a steady diet of Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher on his wings, Eller usually was paired with the likes of former Habs Travis Moen, Rene Bourque and Prust. The last few months, Eller had Smith-Pelly and Jacob de la Rose. In the case of Smith-Pelly, he has been inconsistent throughout his time in Montreal. De la Rose is talented but offense isn’t his strength and as a teenage rookie, that part of his game hasn’t fully developed.

But to exclude Eller from blame is short sighted. Eller does well in maintaining possession of the puck but sometimes he becomes a puck hog and hangs onto it for too long and he will cycle endlessly. He doesn’t possess much offensive creativity and can stand to shoot the puck more. Averaging around 30 points a season for a third line defensive centre is decent especially since Eller gets little power play time and rarely starts in the offensive zone. The onus is on Eller to be more consistent and he has made it clear he wants to better. There is no better time than now.

The only way Eller sees time in an offensive role (other than power play time) is if players are moved. Tomas Plekanec has one year left on his deal and unless he has a horrible season, the Habs will likely try to resign him. If he walks or is traded, Eller could move up especially if either Desharnais or Galchenyuk is at the centre and the other is on the wing.

Is there more?

Speaking of offensive roles, it’s time the coaching staff considered giving Eller more time on the power play. Desharnais gets lots of time on the PP but doesn’t produce as much as he should be. Montreal’s PP was awful all season long as the team rarely changed their strategy and the same players were trotted out to middling results. In his short spurts on the PP, Eller has chipped in with his fair share of points.

Between his draft status as a first rounder, his tools as a big centre and the added pressure of playing in Montreal, the expectations for Eller to be good are pretty high. However, at age 26, it is hard to envision Eller taking a giant leap forward. He is what he is and that is a big defensive centre who can put some offense. Expecting more with the role he is given is asking a little much at this point in his career.