BROSSARD, Que. – So unpopular was the trade of goaltender Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues that it remains to be seen what the reception the players the Canadiens got in return—forwards Lars Eller and Ian Schultz—will receive from Montreal fans.
The two prospects arrived at the club’s rookie camp this week to continue careers that, for the first season or two at least, will be judged on what the team got for the goalie who carried the Canadiens to a surprise berth in the NHL Eastern Conference final.
When the trade was made June 17, general manager Pierre Gauthier said Eller, 21, may be ready to play for the NHL club this season while the burly, 20-year-old Schultz may need a year or two in the minors.
For now, both are upbeat about joining the 101-year-old franchise.
”We’ll find out, but I have a good feeling in my gut,” Eller, a six-foot-two, 198-pound centre from Denmark, said at the team’s suburban training centre. ”I expect a lot of myself, too.
”I don’t mind it. I’d rather that people care about it than not. I know there’s going to be a lot of expectations and there are going to be ups and downs for me this season. There always is. It’s how you handle the downs, so they don’t get too low.”
Eller played most of last season with Peoria of the AHL, registering 18 goals and 39 assists in 70 games. He also played seven games for the Blues, scoring twice.
St. Louis president John Davidson said he didn’t want to let Eller go but that was the price of landing a No. 1 goaltender like Halak, who signed a US$15-million, four-year contract Tuesday.
With the Canadiens’ decision to let go of unrestricted free agents centres Dominic Moore and Glen Metropolit (as well as defencemen Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron), there has been speculation on where Eller may fit in the lineup next season.
Gauthier sees him as a top-two centre eventually, although those spots are now taken by Scott Gomez and Tomas Plakanec. So he may start out as a third or fourth-liner, assuming he makes the team out of training camp.
But he can also play on the wing, where playing time may be available with the Gomez-Brian Gionta duo depending on how returning winger Benoit Pouliot performs.
”My mindset is to come here and make the Montreal team and be as good as I can,” said Eller. ”If I’m good enough, I’m going to play.”
Right-wing prospect Aaron Palushaj was impressed when he played with Eller last season in Peoria before he was obtained by Montreal in a trade for forward Matt D’Agostini.
”He’s creative, he works hard and he’s good defensively. He’s an all-around good player,” said Palushaj.
”Lars could be a good player over time,” said Gauthier. ”He’s a young player, so we’ll see how close he is to performing at a high level in the NHL, but we’re confident he can be a good player for us for a number of years.
”His expectation will be to make the club. We’re going to look at it, but we can say what we want in the summer, it all happens on the ice.”
Schultz has already been tagged as the throw-in, but the six-foot-three, 205-pound brother of Washington’s Jeff Schultz has his eye on making the NHL club as well. He had 24 goals and 31 assists in 70 games for his hometown Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League last season.
He also doesn’t mind dropping the gloves, as his 150 penalty minutes attest.
”You know how good Jaro can be but you don’t know how good Lars and me can be,” said Schultz. ”Sometimes two players are better than one if the right shoes are filled.
“If anything, it’s motivation. We got traded here to make an impact and we’ll do whatever it takes to do that.”
The Canadiens’ goaltending situation will be closely watched this season. Halak ousted Price from the No. 1 job in midseason and then led them to dramatic playoff upsets of Washington and Pittsburgh before bowing out to Philadelphia in the conference final.
But Price is only 22. He was drafted fifth overall in 2005 for his combination of talent and a large body and he seemed to confirm his promise when he led Hamilton to an AHL championship two years later.
Both were due to become restricted free agents this summer and it was clear to everyone, including Gauthier, that only one could stay. So Halak was traded and Montreal signed veteran free agent Alex Auld as a backup.
”Emotionally, it was difficult and I can understand the emotions of people,” Gauthier said. ”We all fell in love with our club, including Jaro.
”Those are decisions that are hard to make but we go forward. Past performances help us in deciding how to go forward. We had two good young goalies and we kept one of them.”
Some doubt Price’s mental toughness, or his commitment to training. But Gauthier feels he has matured and is ready for the next step in his career.
He is in negotiations on a new contract for the Anahim Lake, B.C. native.
”Carey was a very good citizen toward the end of the year when he wasn’t playing,” he said. ”It was frustrating for him.
”Like any athlete, you want to play. But he was a very good team guy and we all respected that. And we feel he’s ready to move forward now.”