BROSSARD, Que. – Most hockey fans in Montreal weren’t happy the day Lars Eller became a Canadien.
The Danish forward was acquired on June 17, 2010 along with prospect Ian Schultz from the St. Louis Blues for perhaps the most popular man in the city at the time, goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The Slovak goalie had just backstopped the Canadiens to upset wins over Washington and Pittsburgh en route to the NHL Eastern Conference final.
But after seeing Eller develop into a strong defensive centre with the promise of goal-scoring to come, and with Carey Price established as top goaltender, the trade is now mostly viewed as at least a saw-off for Montreal.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself last season,” Eller said Tuesday as the Canadiens resumed practising after a two-day break. “I didn’t feel it from my teammates or the fans or you (media).
“I put it on myself. I have really high expectations. There were rough bumps on the way but I still think I improved as the season went on and that I was a better hockey player at the end. Maybe I set the bar a little too high, but I still improved.”
With struggling veteran Scott Gomez sidelined with an upper body injury, Eller looks to establish himself as a regular centre on one of Montreal’s most effective lines with Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn.
That unit’s play is among a string of things that helped Montreal turn around a dismal 1-5-2 start. The Habs had three straight wins last week, including a two-game sweep of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
The schedule has cooled Montreal’s momentum some with five off-days until Friday in Ottawa and Saturday against the Rangers in New York.
It helps that Eller clearly looks more comfortable at centre after starting the season on the wing.
The six-foot-two 200-pound Eller still needs work on his faceoffs and the points have been slow in coming for a player drafted 13th overall in 2007 by the Blues. That season, Eller had 55 points in 39 games for Swedish club Frolunda’s junior team.
Under defence-oriented coach Jacques Martin in Montreal, Eller has had to learn the defensive side first. That has become the best part of his game.
Martin points to Pittsburgh Jordan Staal or Chicago’s Dave Bolland as the sort of two-way player he’d like Eller to become.
“He’s a young player who right now hasn’t shown to me that he’s a high-scoring player,” said Martin. “Now he’s getting some good opportunities, but the key is to continue to play a strong defensive game and then you’ll get opportunities as you get better and stronger.
“He improved his strength quite a bit over the summer. I think last year he got knocked off the puck much easier. He had rehab on a shoulder, but he’s improved his leg strength and it has shown this year.”
Eller, who missed two games at the start of the season because of shoulder surgery, scored seven goals and 10 assists in 77 games as a rookie last year. He’s at one goal and two assists after nine games this season, but his ice time has risen from an average of 11:08 to 14:47.
How his status in the coaches’ eyes has changed was illustrated against Boston on Saturday, when he was given regular shifts after his dreadful giveaway led to a Bruins goal. Last season, he would likely have been benched.
“Last year was a lot of learning,” the 22-year-old said. “Everything was going faster and it took some time to adjust.
“Hopefully this year you’ll see more the player I want to be. When the coach starts to feel confident in you, he gives you more ice time and a little longer leash. That gives you confidence in yourself as well.
Eller looks to a teammate for his on-ice inspiration.
“I want to be a player you can put in any situation. If you’re down a goal or up a goal and there’s one minute left,” said Eller. “Kind of like Tomas Plekanec. He’s one guy I look up to a lot. He does everything really well.”
Eller was somewhat alarmed last season when two other young forwards, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais, were called up from the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs during the season and almost immediately moved ahead of him on the depth chart with their strong play.
He said the veteran who helped him most during that time with encouraging words and good advice was Gomez, the team’s highest-paid player whose job may now be in jeopardy because of Eller and Desharnais.
Gomez had a terrible 2010-11 season with only seven goals and started the new campaign with one assist in six games before he was injured. There is a rising chorus of speculation that the Canadiens may eat his salary and ship his US$7.3million annual salary cap hit to the minors, as the Rangers did with defenceman Wade Redden last season.
Gomez and defenceman Andrei Markov (knee surgery) each skated on his own Tuesday. Martin said they will need a few practices with the team before they can play, which rules out a return this week.