The Montreal Canadiens have a very busy offseason in front of them, and one of their most important decisions is getting Norris Trophy winning defenseman P.K. Subban signed to a long term contract. However, the Habs have another important restricted free agent in Lars Eller. While it is obvious that Subban will sign a long term deal with an annual cap hit higher than any Hab has ever received, predicting Eller’s next contract is much more difficult.
Eller, a 13th overall pick by the St Louis Blues in 2007, was acquired in a 2010 trade that sent Jaroslav Halak to the Blues. He played the following season with the Canadiens, but his ice time was limited to fourth line duty by then head coach Jacques Martin. He showed promise to be a solid defensive player, and chipped in 17 points in 77 games.
Eller played a bigger role in his second season with the Canadiens, and scored 16 goals and 28 points, while playing with Andrei Kostitsyn before the Belarussian winger was dealt to the Nashville Predators. Eller took a step forward that season, but the team was atrocious, finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference, and Eller was playing with Travis Moen and rookie Louis Leblanc as the season came to a close.
Then came the lockout of 2013, but the shortened season that ensued was the best of Eller’s young career. Finally flanked by a pair of wingers who matched his skill level, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher brought out the offensive side of Eller’s game. Lars scored 30 points in 46 games, which is a 53 point pace over a full season, and finally delivered on the promise that he can be more than a third line center.
Unfortunately for Eller, he was injured with a concussion by a devastating head shot in the opening game of the 2013 postseason and would not return for the rest of the season.
Eller entered this season hoping to build on the offensive stats that he put up in 2013. He started off on the right foot, bouncing back from his season ending injury and scoring eight points in the first eight games of the Habs season. Lars followed that up with just one assist in his next nine games, and then bounced back with eight points in 12 contests.
Lars finished off the season in a brutal slump, scoring just nine points in his final 48 games. He did find the score sheet three times in his last two games of the year, before missing the Habs last three games with the flu.
Eller carried that small burst of offense into the postseason, scoring at least a point in each of the Habs four games in a first round sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Lars continued his great play throughout the postseason, and was perhaps the Canadiens most consistent player in the playoffs. He led all forwards and finished second on the team behind Subban in playoff scoring with 13 points in 17 games. He was also used on the second penalty killing unit all season.
Most impressive about Eller’s offensive outburst in the postseason is he was rarely used on the power play. Eller scored 11 of his points at even strength and the other two while shorthanded. He was also used on a line with Brian Gionta who struggled in the playoffs, scoring just one goal in 17 games. Still, Eller was able to continuously find the back of the opponents net, without man advantage ice time, and on a line with someone who could not buy a goal.
Eller’s up and down season makes it difficult to predict what his next contract will be. Lars recently turned 25 and has already proven he can handle a defensive and penalty killing role. He has shown flashes off offense, especially when paired with capable wingers, but his career high for points is 30, although he hit that mark in just 46 games.
The native of Denmark is coming off his second NHL contract which was a two year deal that only cost the Habs $1,325,000 against the salary cap. He is surely due a raise, but how much of a raise is the question. Based on his defensive ability alone, Eller has earned a two year deal and nearly two million per season.
However, when you factor in that Eller is a big center who played at over a 50 point pace a year ago, he deserves a much better deal. It is difficult to figure out what type of contract Eller is about to receive thanks to his Jekyll and Hyde routine early in his career. Whether that is his coaches fault, his linemates fault or his own is not easy to decipher, but it is likely a combination of the three.
My best bet is the team and Eller will agree to a bridge type contract at a moderate cap hit. He will not be paid quite like a second liner yet, but will get a little more than a typical defensive third liner.
I will say Eller signs a two year extension at 3.25 million per season.