Montreal Canadiens Lars Eller Trade Proving Worse Each Year

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 24: Washington Capitals Center Lars Eller (20) skates in control of the puck during the Washington Capitals versus the Montreal Canadiens game on March 24, 2018, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 24: Washington Capitals Center Lars Eller (20) skates in control of the puck during the Washington Capitals versus the Montreal Canadiens game on March 24, 2018, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens had an exceptional third line center in Lars Eller. Trading him made little sense, and has proven to look worse over time.

The Montreal Canadiens have long been weak down the middle of the ice. Their hunt for a true first line center is entering Year 21 by my count. Even beyond top-end talent, the Habs currently have little depth at the position.

As it stands today, Montreal’s best center is Jonathan Drouin. General manager Marc Bergevin admitted he is a winger in an ideal situation. They also have Phillip Danault, though he is in need of a new contract before next season.

After that? I don’t see any National Hockey League proven middlemen. Jacob de la Rose has some experience there. He has shown to be fine on the defensive side of the puck. Offensively, he is yet to prove he can score at all at the top level.

Byron Froese and Michael McCarron are also around. Neither have been able to hold onto permanent NHL jobs in their careers. After that, the only other natural centres that will be in camp are youngsters Jake Evans and recently signed Lukas Vejdemo.

This isn’t news. The organization has not been particularly deep down the middle in a long time. That’s why it came as a surprise when Lars Eller was traded at the 2016 NHL Draft.

Eller was never a first line player but could be NHL’s best third line center.

Eller was not a high scoring center. However, he was an excellent third-line player. He was a great skater, good face-off guy, excellent penalty killer and could match up against very tough competition while driving possession towards the opposing goaltender.

Eller still does all of those things. He just does it while wearing a Washington Capitals sweater. The native of Denmark was swapped to America’s capital for a pair of second-round draft picks. Montreal used the first of those to select Joni Ikonen last spring. They will use the second one late in the second round of this year’s draft.

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Meanwhile, Eller continues to develop his game. He set career highs this year in goals (18) and points (38). He plays a little bit on the power play but scored 32 points at even strength. That’s an impressive number when you consider he is still a third line center and constantly plays against players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Taylor Hall, Artemi Panarin, Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and all the other top players in the league.

With Niklas Backstrom injured and out for Washington’s pivotal sixth game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Eller stepped up. He moved into the top six and went head-to-head against Crosby and Malkin. Eller had the second most ice time among Caps, helping lead his team to the Eastern Conference Final.

Habs didn’t look to future when trading Eller.

When the Canadiens decided to move on from Eller, they made a shortsighted decision. They had just added Danault from the Chicago Blackhawks and also had David Desharnais, Tomas Plekanec and Torrey Mitchell down the middle.

Someone needed to move on, and Bergevin decided it would Eller. However, the writing was on the wall that both Desharnais and Plekanec would not be in Montreal for long. Desharnais was heading into the final year of his deal and had done little to interest the Habs in extending him.

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Plekanec would be 34 just after the next season began. Father Time would soon be catching up with him, yet he had just signed a two-year extension that would pay him $6 million each season.

Money could have easily been found to keep Eller.

That contract would have made Plekanec difficult to trade. Trading Eller wasn’t the answer to having too many centers. Eller played a similar role to Plekanec and is seven years younger. A smart organization would have found a way to keep Eller.

It’s not like Desharnais was demanding 20 minutes per night with his play. He was also making $3.5 million per season. That is exactly what Eller was getting paid, and will be earning for the next five seasons.

Not to mention, the team immediately traded for Andrew Shaw and rewarded him with a hefty six-year deal at $3.9 million per year. A wiser decision would have been to keep Eller and either move Desharnais, don’t acquire Shaw, or both.

Fast forward two years from the Eller trade. Both Desharnais and Plekanec are gone, the Habs are trying to move left wingers to center and are again looking for an upgrade down the middle.

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Eller certainly wouldn’t fill the first line role. However, the Habs would be in much better shape if they had Danault and Eller as their second and third line centers. There was never a time that they didn’t need Eller. Now, with the center void left unfilled, and Eller’s offence growing, they could use him more than ever.