Saturday, 7 December 2013

Lars Eller - The Great Dane

Think back. Early on in the 2013 lockout-shortened season, Lars Eller got off to a slow start. There were even rumors beginning  to swirl that the Montreal Canadiens were looking to trade the young Dane. At that time I began putting together an article to disprove the notion that the Habs would contemplate such a move.

Life got in the way, I never finished up the article. Some details changed, David Desharnais signed a long term contract with the Canadiens and Lars Eller started to look dominant en route to the playoffs and his eventual meeting with Eric Gryba. 

As it becomes more and more evident just how important the 24-year old Dane is to the future of the Montreal Canadiens, I felt it was time to revisit the article I was putting together. I started looking over my old research. I started editing What I had already started to piece together. What we're left with is a profile on an emerging future NHL star.

Since early last season, Michel Therrien has had a plan for Lars Eller. Eller is being groomed.  At the start last season, Eller spent time on both special team units while playing fourth line minutes at even strength.I was and remain convinced that Coach Michel Therrien's plan was to virtually "build the player from scratch". Lars Eller is being groomed into the role of Thomas Plekanec 2.0. 

I can see a day in the near future, say 1-2 seasons from now where Plekanec' burdens are lessened. Where he is eased in to a 3rd line role at Center.A shutdown role playing 15 minutes with Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuck as the top two centres. That scenario would turn an older Plek into a Carbo/Gainey type -  ELITE shutdown Centre - While putting size and skill in the Top 6 at C.

This Montreal Canadiens brass led by Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin is building these players for tomorrow, not for today. Long term vision. wrote a great piece on this months ago. "Time. Patience. Faith". That's what Bergevin is working with and Michel Therrin is HIS Coach. They have a plan. Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada once told TSN 690's Mitch Melnick that when Bergevin first took the job he was getting calls from other General Managers about Eller. Bergevin would say he needed time to evaluate. 

I am certain, it didn't take long for both the Coach the GM to complete their evaluating, they've seen what other GM's saw and they now have their plan in place. 

David Desharnais signed a long term deal last season. Two years ago he had a phenomenal season, and recently he seems to have regained that form. After long stretches of aimlessness from him, I believe he is being given every opportunity to earn a place for next season, either with the Canadiens or with another team. I don't believe he is in the teams long term plans. I do believe Lars Eller is.

On June 17th 2012, The Globe and Mail's Sean Gordon wrote a long piece spotlighting then General Manager Pierre Gauthier's acquisition of Lars Eller; 

"If Gauthier's more than willing to take his lumps, it's partly because he isn't playing on the same chessboard as the team's fervent supporters; the trade provides something close to a mission statement.

"We're looking into the future … in the big picture of things, going forward, we feel very comfortable with having done this," Gauthier said.

He will be criticized for getting a relatively paltry return of two prospects for the 25-year-old Halak, whose legend was cemented with fans during the postseason.

But 21-year-old centre Lars Eller, the 13th pick in the 2007 draft, and rough-hewn Calgary Hitmen winger Ian Schultz (the 20-year-old brother of the Washington Capitals' Jeff) fit Gauthier's vision.

Indeed, Blues GM Doug Armstrong said he tried to steer Gauthier away from Eller, who had two goals in seven NHL games last season and scored 18 goals and 39 assists in 70 AHL games, but that the Habs wouldn't relent.

"It's not like we viewed [Eller]as expendable," Armstrong said. "It may be difficult for some of the fans in Montreal, but once they see him play, they'll understand."

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Dane projects as a second-line centre, and both the Blues and Canadiens view him as NHL ready for this fall.

Citing the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Gauthier said the new paradigm involves piling up cheap, young talent that allows you to add higher-priced pieces later on. It explains why he didn't insist on a current roster player in the bidding (sources suggest four teams were involved).

As it is, the Canadiens acquired two players for roughly what Halak cost last season - probably the best they could hope for in a year where there is a rich vein of free-agent goaltending.

"That's the type of maneuvering we have to do with this new cap system," Gauthier said. "And to acquire good young players who will play for you under their entry-level contracts, that becomes very important. You look at players and how good they're going to get. You can get established players, but you can also get them in unrestricted free agency on July 1."

Fans of the former General Manager are few and far between here in Montreal and while Ian Schultz seems to be an NHL bust, Lars Eller was always the center-piece of the deal for Gauthier. This is a deal that had his fingerprints all over it. Whatever we think of Gauthier, his deals involving emerging NHL talent have all seemed to work out for the Canadiens.

Patrick Holland, Michael Bournival, Greg Pateryn and Lars Eller are all young players that the Canadiens acquired under Gauthier's watch. All four are projected to be NHLer's. Gauthier as General Manager acquired three of them - two of whom are currently on the roster. For all his failings as GM, this is one area where the man deserves to be praised. 

In Gordon's piece, Pierre Gauthier cited the Chicago Blackhawks model which is interesting to note, not just because Gauthier now works in Chicago, but the Canadiens current General Manager came from the Blackhawks system, making Eller likely a player that fits his vision. 

Looking further back to 2007, Bill Meltzer of HockeyBuzz profiled Eller leading into the NHL entry draft in a May 6th piece. His piece, almost the entirety of which I am reprinting here shows you just how high the ceiling could be for Eller;

"Among the 2007 draft prospects, Eller is arguably the most intriguing. The Dane has shot up the rankings to the point that he's become a fashionable "sleeper" first round candidate whom many say has the upside to someday outshine many of the top ten picks.

Over the last few weeks, I've talked to as many people as possible to get a sense of how far Eller has risen. Two scouts were kind enough to respond so far. In the upcoming weeks, I have arranged to speak with Eller's Frölunda head coach Jens Gustavsson and, hopefully, to several other NHL scouts to whom I've reached out. I've also poured over as many English and Swedish scouting reports on him that I've been able to find.

I have yet to see Eller play first-hand, so I can't offer any personal observations. Because Eller is Danish, he plays at the Division I level at the World Championships. And because he's been playing at the Swedish junior level for Frölunda, rather than Elitserien, no clips from his games are readily available.

However, veteran hockey people who know a lot more than I do have been raving about Eller. I thought I'd share their commentary and excerpts from the scouting reports.

Eastern Conference NHL amateur scout (via e-mail):

"Eller has come on as much as any player in this draft. Last year you could see the skill level but he was undersized even for a junior player. This year he's grown and added strength. In terms of skill, he is a plus skater and shooter and an excellent playmaker. He's a kid with a lot of upside."

Independent scout (via telephone):

Would you say Eller is the best kept secret in the draft?
"No, because Eller isn't a secret anymore. He's on a lot of team's radar screen."

Do you see him going in the first round?
"I don't see why he shouldn't. There's kind of a cat-and-mouse game that I think could go on with him, where teams are going to try to feel out how long they can wait and maybe grab another player or two they like before they take him. But more and more I think someone's going to blink pretty early on him and take him."

Could it be a situation-- like Forsberg in 1991 -- where he goes in the top 10 even though he's projected by Central Scouting and others anywhere from mid-to-late first round or the second?
"Well, you never want to put that kind of expection on a kid. Top 10? That might be a little high, but not much. If some team has the [guts] to do something like that, though, this might be the year."

How would you rate his skill level?
"He has no real weaknesses to his game. Skating- top notch. Stickhandling-top notch. Passing-- top notch. Plus he's a mature, two-way player. He's filling out his frame, so size isn't really a concern any more. He isn't afraid to get hit. If there's a flaw, it's that he's sometimes a little too unselfish and passes up open shots."

I've heard some people compare him to Henrik Zetterberg when Zetterberg was a teenager. Is that a fair comparison player, in terms of raw skill level?
"That's a real high standard to meet-- that's setting the bar really high, I think. You know that Detroit was able to draft Zetterberg in the seventh round (210th overall in 1999). There were size questions about Zetterberg back then and he didn't really come into the limelight until after he was drafted. I don't think it's fair to expect Eller to do what Zetterberg did. What I will say is he has the skill level to a be a special player if he continues improving at the same rate."

So if Eller clearly has that kind of upside, why is he still not a top 10 prospect-- or even a top 30 according to some sources? In a year where there are question marks about pretty much everyone, why isn't he in the mix?
"I'd say it's two things. He's from Denmark, so even though he plays in a very good junior program in Sweden, scouts couldn't get to look at him in the (elite level) of the WJC and Under-18s. The highest competition he's faced was in the Swedish junior playoffs."

Okay, but Kyle Turris was pretty much in the same boat. And that hasn't really held him back.
"No, it hasn't. You're right. But Turris has shown he can play for [Team] Canada and he's been accepted to a proven college hockey program at Wisconsin. But there are guys who don't feel comfortable pushing the Danish kid up until they actually see him at a higher level on a regular basis. There isn't the track record to go on."

What was the second reason why he's down a little bit in the rankings from what his skill level is supposed to be?
"In some ways it helps him and in some ways maybe it hurts him a little that he's surrounded by so many skilled players [on Frölunda]. It helps him because there's been scouts at a lot of his games. But it hurts him because maybe he wouldn't be as effective when other teams focus on stopping him. There's guess-work in projecting that, because the quality of defense and goaltending below the Elite league-- and same thing for the Division I tournament -- isn't always the best.

"Next year, Denmark will be in the WJC and he should be there. He should also be a rookie in the Swedish Elites by that point. He'll already be drafted by then, but we'll get to see how far he's come along. "

What's a best-case and worst-case scenario for him at the NHL level? Could he potentially not make it at all?
Unless it's a [Sidney] Crosby or [Alexander] Ovechkin level player, anyone could fall a little short. He could get hurt. He could stop developing. He could have trouble adjusting to the next level. But I think he doesn't have any real weaknesses to hold him back. I think he'll be an NHL player and could be a very good one." 

There's more to find in Meltzer's Eller Profile on and I encourage you to check it out.

Time. Patience. Faith.

If this recent streak the Habs are on has show us anything, it's that these three things are things fans need to have. The Coach has it - Listen to his speech before the Columbus game on 24CH recently. The GM has it - look at how his moves worked out. Now we need to have it to.

The Habs are on their path, let's follow them on it and enjoy the ride. 

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