Daily Hab-it: A rookie miscast?
Montreal Canadiens' Lars Eller, centre, celebrates his second goal with teammates Travis Moen, left, and Andrei Kostitsyn as they face the Boston Bruins during first period NHL action Tuesday, March 8, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Published Wednesday, April 20, 2011 1:57AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 3:10AM EDT
Just before the playoffs began and the Canadiens were finished their final practice before heading off to Boston, I happened to catch Lars Eller by himself sitting at his stall, taking off his equipment.
I decided I'd go for a chat.
Eller, for anyone who has regularly read this blog, has been a bit of a fascination for me this season.
His story is obviously a compelling one, having been traded for a playoff hero that none of the team's fans wanted to see leave town. That pressure would have likely been far more severe were it not for the outstanding play of Carey Price helping the city quickly forget about Jaroslav Halak.
Just imagine what it would have been like for Eller had Price faltered while Halak shined in St. Louis? It would have been a living nightmare. Perhaps Eller owes Price a nice steak dinner when this is all said and done.
In any case, Eller took a long time to gain Jacques Martin's trust this season, and it wasn't very long before a lot of people in town wanted to see him sent down to Hamilton, if only to get his confidence back and play top line minutes in top line situations.
After being a healthy scratch for a game against Buffalo on Feb 15, Eller began to show a bit of what he may one day be capable of, reeling off four goals and three assists in a span of nine games. He then finished the season with just two assists in his final 15 games.
One thing I've come to appreciate about Eller is his hockey IQ. He can be critical of his own play just like a lot of other players can, but he often does so in a much more thoughtful way than most. Coming from a rookie, it's pretty eye-opening stuff.
The best example of that came during the height of the calls to send him down to Hamilton, with some suggesting the only reason it wasn't happening was because it would make GM Pierre Gauthier look bad. Eller, however, offered up the analysis that the biggest weakness in his game was the speed of his decision-making, and that was something which wouldn't improve in the slower AHL.
Gained coach's trust
So, after a season where he put together pretty underwhelming totals of 17 points in 77 games – with seven of those points coming in that nine-game stretch in February and March, and 10 coming in the other 68 games – I was interested to know what he thought of his own progression.
Eller admitted that at times when he would suddenly be benched for a period – which happened often this season – he would struggle to understand why, and overall he felt he wasn't often put in situations with offensive linemates where he would have a better chance to succeed.
Still, Eller played in all of the team's final 20 games and reached at least 10 minutes of ice time in all but two of them. Over the first 62 games of the season, Eller was scratched five times and played fewer than 10 minutes another 25 times. So overall, he was pretty pleased with how his first full season in the NHL went.
"Sometimes it's better to take a lot of little steps to the top of the ladder, instead of taking one big one and come crashing down," Eller said. "I'm happy with where I'm at, but I can still get better and I'm hoping to show that in this series."
That is where the ulterior motive for my visit with Eller came in. After watching Martin put Eller between Tom Pyatt and Travis Moen for three days straight in practice, it appeared that Eller was about to be given a pretty specific assignment.
Could it be that Eller would be given a shutdown role, given that his was the line with the most size, and Moen and Pyatt are both defensive players? Could Eller be the strategy Martin was talking about to slow down the big Boston line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton?
I asked Eller if this was the role that was awaiting him when the series began, fully expecting him to tell me that he couldn't tell me.
Instead, he looked me straight in the eye with a sincerity that would be really difficult to fake and said, "Honestly, I have no idea what role he has planned for me."
He then quickly went into a defence of his offensive game, something he apparently believed I was slighting with my question.
"I've never really been a defensive guy," he began. "I think I've really improved on that this year, more than I ever have in any other year. But I've always been an offensive player, I just haven't been able to show that this year. I want to be a better player in my own end, though. The better you play in your own end, the more you play. Just look at Pleky (Tomas Plekanec), he plays in every situation. I want to be that kind of player."
Through three games of this series, it appears Eller is indeed being groomed to become just that.
A good start
The first game in Boston, Martin appeared to try as often as was sensible to get Eller out against Krejci. For instance, in the third period of Game 1 with the Canadiens clinging to a 1-0 lead, Krejci took seven shifts in the third period. On four of them he played against Eller, Pyatt and Moen for at least a good part of it. And on two of those four, it was Martin who put Eller out against Krejci as opposed to Julien using his last change to get the match-up.
In Game 2 that match-up was not used nearly as often by either Martin or Julien, as Plekanec and Krejci faced off most of the night with the absence of Andrei Kostitsyn forcing Moen off Eller's line and onto this one.
But in Game 3 on Monday night, with Martin getting the last change and Kostitsyn back in uniform, we saw the Eller-Krejci match-up throughout the night.
Frankly, it was a bit of a disaster.
Overmatched through two periods
Eller played 13 shifts in the game, and in eight of the nine shifts through the first two periods it seemed as though Martin was matching him with Krejci. Martin says it is the defensive match-up that is more important, and that is clear with P.K. Subban and Hal Gill hardly playing against anyone other than Krejci. But there's no denying what Martin was trying to do with Eller in this game.
I've provided a little synopsis of all 13 of Eller's shifts in Game 3 below, and you can see it for yourself.
One thing worth noting is that the circumstances of this game were far different than they were in Boston, and while trailing it's possible Martin was trying to get Plekanec, Kostitsyn and Cammalleri away from the tough minutes of defending the Krejci line.
But either way, this is quite a leap for a rookie who has "never really been a defensive guy."
Krejci scored at 3:11 and Plekanec came out to take the ensuing faceoff against him. Eller's line jumped over the boards 26 seconds later and played the next 27 seconds against the Krejci line, spending the bulk of that time in the Boston end.
After Julien sends out Krejci on the fly, Martin counters with Eller, Pyatt and Kostitsyn at about 6:42 of the first. The Bruins had some good pressure in the Canadiens zone until Krejci was called for hooking at 7:27 just to the right of Carey Price, bailing Montreal out of what looked to be a dangerous situation. The Bruins had two shots on Price and were wide on another over this spurt.
Martin sends Eller, Pyatt and Moen out for the final seconds of the power play from the Krejci penalty anticipating he will stay on the ice when he comes out, which he does. A faceoff win by Tom Pyatt leads to a shot on goal by the same, and Julien sends Bergeron out against Eller for the defensive zone faceoff. Martin sticks with the Eller line in spite of having an offensive zone faceoff, Pyatt loses it to Bergeron and the Bruins make their way to the other end for a shot on Price.
Julien sends Krejci's line out for the faceoff following Horton's goal at 14:38 and Martin sends out Eller, Pyatt and Moen. By this point, it is obvious this is the match-up Martin wants. After an initial brief foray into the Boston end, the Bruins come back down the ice and pin Montreal in their own zone. The Eller line's shift winds up being 1:22 before they were able to clear the zone for a change, but not before Boston got four shot attempts off, though none of them reached the net (three blocked, one missed).
Eller's line is sent out in the middle of a shift by the Bergeron line at about 18:37, and Julien sends Krejci out about 20 seconds later. Nothing of real consequence happened.
Krejci's line goes out on the fly at 5:54 and Eller follows five seconds later, this time with Pyatt and Kostitsyn as Moen had just been used on a penalty kill. Boston manages two shot attempts, one on goal, by the time Eller heads to the bench after a shift that runs 1:02. As he does, Cammalleri is rushing up ice and gives a drop pass to Kostitsyn, who goes inside out on Zdeno Chara and scores. Plekanec gets the easiest plus rating point of his life, as he was just skating away from the bench as the goal was scored.
Krejci goes out on the fly at 8:53, and once again Eller follows 14 seconds later with Pyatt and Kostitsyn, Moen having played the last shift following the goal with Plekanec and Cammalleri. Not a shift of any great consequence as Krejci heads off at 9:28 and Eller does the same 12 seconds later.
On the fly, Julien and Martin simultaneously send out Krejci and Eller at about 12:04, with Kostitsyn once again on the wing. It's another strong shift of pressure for the Bruins in the Canadiens end. Two Chara point shots are blocked by Gill and Eller, and one point shot by Johnny Boychuk gets through over the course of a shift that extended for 1:24.
Krejci jumps over the boards at 16:11, Eller goes at 16:22 with Moen and Pyatt this time, the previous shift perhaps giving Martin food for thought in using Kostitsyn here. A relatively uneventful shift ends when Thomas freezes a Moen shot at 17:07.
This is the first shift of the game where Eller is sent out immediately after a Krejci shift ended, with Martin putting him alongside Cammalleri and Moen at 2:17 to face Boston's fourth line of Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille.
The game is now 3-2 Boston and Krejci goes out following a Montreal icing to face the Plekanec line, but Martin again counters with Eller, Pyatt and Moen as soon as Plekanec is able to get off at 8:44. This is Eller's first shift in just over five and a half minutes. When Krejci came off at the next whistle Eller did as well, after only a 17-second shift.
Martin sends Plekanec out on the fly to face the Krejci line. Eller's line follows and gets the final few seconds of Krejci's shift before he's replaced by Campbell's line. This is the second of three third period shifts at this point where Eller is not being matched with Krejci.
Eller's final shift of the game starts at 13:19, two seconds after Krejci jumps on. He's paired with Pyatt and Mathieu Darche and they get pinned once again, first by the Krejci line and again by the Campbell line. Eller doesn't get off until his shift has gone for 1:20 – his fourth shift over a minute in length in the game – and by then Boston's reeled off four shot attempts, two of them reaching Price. Eller was the only player who didn't see the ice over the final five minutes, aside from Benoit Pouliot who was benched for the entire third period.
All this may be too much information, but I think it shows that perhaps Eller is being put into another situation where he is set up to fail. It's at the very least one where success will be very difficult to attain. This may only be a stop gap measure until Jeff Halpern is ready to return, seeing as it's a role tailor-made for him, but judging by the results in Game 3 it might not be one Eller is fully prepared to deal with just yet.
Barring Halpern's return, Martin might want to bite the bullet and put his best offensive line against Boston's because the number one defensive mechanism he mentioned would be effective against Lucic, Krejci and Horton was playing in the offensive zone.
No forward line on the Canadiens is better equipped to do that than the one centered by Plekanec, even if it loses out big time on the size match-up.