Eller, Shaw Trades Show Canadiens Have Missed the Point

The Montreal Canadiens made two highly publicized 2016 NHL Entry Draft-day trades, which left fans something to be desired, namely forward Lars Eller.

The Underappreciated Lars Eller

Ex-Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller
Ex-Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Eller, who got traded to the Washington Capitals for two second-round picks (one each in 2017 and 2018), was always an unheralded player by many, a defensive stalwart who could never produce enough to stay in a top-six role.

His harshest critics generally cited his $3.5 million cap hit as being too high for a guy who never topped 30 points, which he scored in his 46-game 2012-13 season, hinting at potential for greater numbers. Maybe that’s why many fans resented the former first-round pick, for not living up to that potential, despite him having developed into arguably Montreal’s top defensive forward.

Well, defense isn’t sexy these days. He’s no Sheldon Souray circa 2003, in other words. Hence the acquisition of Andrew Shaw, who isn’t exactly known for his defense, from the Chicago Blackhawks. Unfortunately, for him (and maybe the Canadiens), he’s more known for the homophobic slur that got him suspended these past playoffs, during which he admittedly scored six points (four goals) in six games.

Learning from Past Mistakes?

Ex-Montreal Canadiens forward Zack Kassian
Ex-Montreal Canadiens forward Zack Kassian – (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s not that anyone should dwell on Shaw’s past indiscretion. However, it is interesting to note how general manager Marc Bergevin continually cites character as something he looks for in players and then goes out and acquires players with black marks on their records indicating just the opposite, whether it be Zack Kassian or Alexander Semin.

Everyone deserves second chances. So, that’s not really the issue. It’s that the Habs promptly shipped Kassian out of town following his stint in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Program and terminated the contract of Semin once it was deemed he didn’t have the hustle head coach Michel Therrien craved like cold pizza in the morning, rightly or wrongly.

The problem is, while Shaw can be a valuable player, he’s at his most efficient when he’s getting under the skin of opposing players, making it very possible he suffers a hateful-remark relapse in the future.

If he does, what do the Habs, an organization known for its act-first, think-later mentality when it comes to purging players from out of its system as a result of ill-advised off-ice antics, do? Will they have traded an underrated defensive stalwart in Eller away just to fit a problem child in under the cap and then have to get rid of him as well?

Making Sense of the Trades

Andrew Shaw
Andrew Shaw – (KristenJerkins/Flickr)

Superficially speaking, the trade makes sense in that the Habs dealt away one of their centers (Galchenyuk, Plekanec, Desharnais and Mitchell) for help on the wing. It also isn’t just the right side, but the left as well with Galchenyuk presumably having been moved to center permanently.

So, with Shaw able to play wing, the Habs add another Brendan Gallagher-esque player to the mix, addressing the logjam down the middle, the lack of depth on the wings and the issue of grit all at once.

However, Shaw, with a 20-goal season having played on lines with some of the top names in the game notwithstanding, isn’t some irreplaceable commodity on the black market. Other players like him, who Therrien enjoys moving around up and down his lineup, exist. Don’t look back too far for another example in Dale Weise, who the Habs just traded away to, coincidentally enough, Chicago.

Maybe this is Stan Bowman’s way of repaying the favor, getting excess value in exchange for an asset that was becoming too big for his britches.

This is perhaps why Bowman is Chicago’s general manager and Bergevin was his assistant. Maybe Bowman preyed on sentimentality, with Bergevin having firsthand history with Shaw, having signed him to his first NHL contract. The fact is, if Gallagher, as a top-line player with Montreal, has a cap hit of $3.75 million, it makes no sense to go after a similar, less offensively inclined player reportedly looking for one of $4.5 million, who still remains unsigned.

Offensive Potential

Alex DeBrincat
Alex DeBrincat – Photo courtesy of CHL Images

Interestingly enough, it might end up being Alex DeBrincat, who was selected by Chicago with one of the picks they got from Montreal in the Shaw trade, who ends up more closely resembling Gallagher in terms of production. Shaw, in spite of his effectiveness at getting under the skin of opponents, was never a big scorer in junior. Both Gallagher (5’9”, 184 pounds) and DeBrincat (5’7”, 160 pounds) were and are.

Whatever Shaw is has been blurred, perhaps like Bergevin’s judgment, by his time playing for one of the best teams and with some of the best talent in the league. Sure, Shaw can help the Canadiens, but Eller could have more.

That is undeniable based on their defensive records and their offensive potential, with Eller and Shaw having near-identical rates of goals scored per 60 minutes in 2014-15 (0.75 vs. 0.76). Eller also ended up with one more point overall in two fewer games that season. In 2015-16, there was admittedly a greater disparity in Shaw’s favor (0.65 vs. 0.74), and Eller critics may point to a lack of consistency as to why he’s now a Capital. However, the only things he could look forward to consistently in Montreal were different linemates of sub-par quality. Now that he’s a Capital, look for his and Shaw’s fortunes to reverse.

The truly sad part is Montreal had cap space to spare and probably could have kept Eller. These were two separate deals after all. No one (reportedly) forced Bergevin to make one deal with Washington and another with Chicago. So, this hints at the Habs looking to make space for one or more big moves heading into free agency. They had better be good ones, even if only to offset these past two.