In the early going of 2013-14, some of the most important contributions to the Montreal Canadiens have come from an impressive group of young skaters. More remarkable still, those players aren't named Subban or Price or Pacioretty.
Lars Eller, with five points, leads the team in scoring. The 24-year-old enjoyed a breakthrough lockout-shortened campaign, putting up 30 points in 48 contests, and so far he's been even better this year. He isn't playing carefully sheltered minutes, either; Eller leads the Canadiens' forward group in even-strength ice time and plays a regular shift on the penalty kill, too. Just for good measure, he's also been the best faceoff man among the Habs' regular centers.
There were more than a few eyebrows raised when Montreal made Eller the central return in trade for goaltender Jaroslav Halak; despite Eller's impressive draft pedigree (13th overall in 2007), he'd been relatively unimpressive in North America. Now it's looking like he was just a bit of a late bloomer.
At the moment, the line Eller is centering is having almost as much success as he is. 2012 third-overall pick Alex Galchenyuk (four assists) and 2012-13 Calder Trophy finalist Brendan Gallagher (two goals, one assist) sit second and third in team scoring; they are 19 and 21 years of age, respectively.
Both have compelling stories. Galchenyuk, despite being a high pick, was a gamble for Montreal. Thanks to a serious knee injury, the rising star played only two games in his draft year, yet the Habs were confident enough to make him the third-overall pick. It was a high-risk choice, but it looks to be paying off for them.
Gallagher's road to the NHL was also far from easy. Listed at 5'9" and 180 pounds, he's always faced questions about his size—questions which left him available for Montreal to pick in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. What he doesn't lack is tenacity, as evidenced by items like two 100-plus PIM seasons in the WHL and a surprisingly well-developed fight card.
That's a pretty impressive list of young talent for any team, but the bizarre thing in Montreal is that there's a pretty decent case that at least two-thirds of the 'Kid Line' slots in outside the top three when it comes to being the most important parts of Montreal's youth movement. That's because, as we alluded to in the introduction, the team's starting goaltender (Carey Price, 26), top defenseman (reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, 24) and the guy who has led the club in scoring the last two seasons (Max Pacioretty, 24) are also still a long way from their twilight years.
Most teams need to pick in the top five repeatedly for a number of years to build up a core like that. Montreal did it twice, drafting Galchenyuk and Price, but the majority of their young core was found later on in the draft. Pacioretty was picked late in the first round, Subban in the second and Gallagher later still, while Eller came over in a trade. Even more remarkably, along the way the Habs swapped out 2007 12th-overall pick Ryan McDonagh in a blockbuster trade that saw Scott Gomez and change come the other way; it's a little scary to think of how good the team might be today if not for that blunder.
It's a group of youngsters that helped drive Montreal to a fourth-overall finish last season, but given the age of the guys on the roster and the wealth of talent still in the system (including recent first-round draft picks Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi) there's reason to believe that the future could be even brighter.