MONTREAL – Playoff hero Jaroslav Halak is far from being a forgotten man in the hearts and minds of Montreal Canadiens fans, and it will probably be a long time before that happens.
But Lars Eller is hoping he can speed that process along.
The Danish centre was the key piece acquired by Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier when he made the unpopular decision to trade Halak to the St. Louis Blues, and Eller is eager to climb out of Halak’s imposing shadow and show fans they got a pretty good player in return.
“Yeah, of course, but it’s something that could take some time,” Eller, 21, said Saturday after the Canadiens first on-ice workout of training camp. “Jaro was a great player, he meant a lot to his team. I cannot replace him in the role he had on this team. Of course you want to make a name for yourself.”
At six-foot-two, 192 pounds with a smooth, powerful skating stride, Eller could become the big, top-six centre the Canadiens have lacked for the better part of two decades.
But for now, Eller has far simpler things on his mind.
“My goal is to just make the team,” he said.
Though Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin won’t come right out and say it, it would be shocking if Eller were not in uniform when Montreal opens the season Oct. 7 in Toronto.
He could even be in line for a role in Montreal’s top-six if Martin chooses to use him on the wing, something he said will be experimented with in the pre-season.
But if not, Eller will have to adjust for the first time in his life to being a role player, one playing on the bottom-six paired with players more known for their defensive skills than their offensive prowess.
“I want to be as good in my own end as I want to be in the offensive end,” Eller said. “I take pride in my defensive play.”
A native of Rodovre, a suburb of Copenhagen, Eller has been groomed to play the game his whole life even though he grew up in a country where hockey makes barely a blip on the sports radar.
His father Olaf coaches in the domestic semi-pro league and all three of his brothers played the game at a high level.
Eller strapped on his first pair of skates at age two and his life has been dominated by hockey ever since.
“It was almost only hockey talk at the dinner table, on the phone, or just in general,” Eller said of his relationship with his father. “We don’t talk about much besides hockey. But most of the time he tells me about what I do well and focuses on that. He’s never been a really hard critic of my game.”
Eller moved to Sweden when he was 16 to play his junior hockey with Frolunda HC Goteborg and he was taken 13th overall by the Blues at the 2007 entry draft.
Eller had six points in six games for Denmark at the 2007 world junior championship and had 29 points in 48 games playing as a 19-year-old with Frolunda’s senior team in 2008-09.
Eller made the jump across the Atlantic last year and, after having his pre-season ruined by mononucleosis, played 70 games with the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League.
He made his NHL debut with the Blues on Nov. 5, scoring the lone goal in a 2-1 loss and being named the game’s third star, but lasted only five games before being sent back down.
Eller made the AHL’s all-rookie team after leading Peoria with 57 points last year, finishing the season on fire with nine goals, 12 assists and a plus-7 rating over his final 18 games.
It was perhaps an indication that he is ready to take his game to the next level.
“It’s always important to finish strong at the end of a season, that’s when you have to be at your best, and I think I did that last year,” said Eller, who had never before played more than 48 games in a season. “It was a good step up the ladder for me. I learned a lot about consistency and making the right decisions at crucial places on the ice.”
Eller hopes to take what he learned and apply it this season in Montreal, a place he has taken an immediate liking to.
“This is a great city,” he said. “There’s a lot of life downtown. It’s a little bit like home.”
Eller’s been in Montreal about a month and is living in a hotel room, but it would be a pretty safe bet for him to start looking for something a little more permanent.
The only question that remains is how long it will take him to make Canadiens fans forget the hero who left town.