Who Is Montreal Canadiens' Future No. 1 Center: Lars Eller or Alex Galchenyuk?

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Who Is Montreal Canadiens' Future No. 1 Center: Lars Eller or Alex Galchenyuk?
Francois Lacasse/Getty Images
Montreal Canadiens forwards Alex Galchenyuk (left), Brendan Gallagher and Lars Eller celebrate a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Under normal circumstances, most teams would be ecstatic that their two best centers are playing high-quality hockey at the same time, just as Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk are for the Montreal Canadiens. However, circumstances are far from normal for the Habs.

For instance, having your two most prolific centers (and players) on the same line, one as a left-winger? Far from ideal. Your two most prolific centers playing on the team’s arguable third line? Even less so.

Admittedly, though, when that third line, following this past weekend’s action, is outscoring the other three in total points, 14 (19 with linemate Brendan Gallagher) to 13, it’s probably safe to say it no longer qualifies as a third line.

Just how good has the Galchenyuk (19 years old), Eller (24) and Gallagher (21) line been?

So good that, despite the combined offensive ineptitude of everyone else, the team has still been averaging over thee goals per game. So good that head coach Michel Therrien risked losing their inherent chemistry together by breaking them up on the off chance they could get the rest of the lineup going.

It’s even that much more of a testament to their skill that Therrien’s gamble has been paying off. At least it did against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night.

Playing Galchenyuk and Gallagher with second-line center Tomas Plekanec, the latter netted his first goal of the season on the power play, albeit without either of the former drawing assists. Similarly, after scoring an empty-net goal against the Edmonton Oilers last Thursday night, Max Pacioretty scored in the second straight game playing a good portion of it alongside Eller, who “scored” as well.

While Eller’s “shorty” was more a sign of the Canucks making a mistake sticking with Roberto Luongo (as would be general manager Mike Gillis’ futile season-long attempt to trade him last year to no avail) than it is of Eller’s ability, he does now have five goals (Eller that is; Luongo still has just the one).

Meanwhile, Galchenyuk, who has one goal and six assists, has hardly been disappointing. At 19 years of age, he really shouldn’t be as good as he has been, and yet he’s a hockey player and not an illusionist. Rest assured, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you.

Drafted third overall in 2012, Galchenyuk was almost unanimously appointed the team’s No. 1 center of the future from the get-go. Not only did he have the skill, but he had the size, currently poised to fill out further into his 6’1”, 203-pound frame. However, this was all before Eller (6’2”, 215 pounds) emerged as the player he is today.

Even as recently as the start of last season, Eller was benched for two straight games before ultimately finishing the season with 13 points in the final 12 games. So, this season’s early success is hardly a flash in the pan, but more so a continuation of a long-term trend that, really, has been developing ever since Eller was acquired in the Jaroslav Halak trade.

In 2009-10, his first in the NHL, Eller had two goals in seven games with the St. Louis Blues. In 2010-11, his first with the Habs, he had 17 points. The following season he had 28. Even in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he managed to better his output from the previous season with 30 in 46 games.

If anything, this season is mere confirmation that Eller is completely healthy after getting concussed by Ottawa Senator Eric Gryba in the first round of the playoffs last spring. His five goals, despite being a pleasant surprise, haven’t really come from out of nowhere. This has all been four years in the making.

Sure, early-season stats are about as reliable backup goalie Peter Budaj in overtime of a crucial playoff game, but it’s hard to look at both Eller and, say, Alexander Ovechkin’s stats so far this year and not be impressed—which, in and of itself, is impressive relative to Eller, being able to compare him to the reigning MVP.

Immediately following this past weekend, both players had five goals and two assists in five games. Eller even had two game-winning goals to Ovechkin’s none (Ovechkin now has one). In fact, the only stat category in which Ovechkin had Eller beat was shots on goal. But, in Eller’s defense, that’s like comparing a simple sniper rifle to a Swiss Army knife...equipped with a sniper rifle.

Ovechkin’s multitool, shoot-first, ask-questions-later offense may have its benefits. However, it has also resulted in a 14.3 shooting percentage compared to Eller’s insane 35.7 percent, yet one more category in which Eller comes out on top.

Eller is obviously not Ovechkin. He will likely not even come close to replicating Ovechkin’s output when this season is all said and done. However, if one can nonetheless compare him favorably to an All-Star first-line left- and right-winger (if last season’s All-Star voting is anything to go by), it only makes sense to assume he’s capable of being that first-line center the Habs have been seeking for decades.

Who Will End up the Montreal Canadiens' No. 1 Center by the Start of 2014-15?

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There are definitely worse things out there than having Galchenyuk and Eller as a team’s top two centers. David Desharnais, for instance, centering one of them comes to mind right off the bat.

As Therrien has hinted at through his actions, it’s plainly logical to spread the wealth to get others going offensively if that strategy indeed pans out. As such, assuming both are destined to stay broken up into the long term, the question becomes, who, between the two of them, will end up the first-liner?

It’s impossible to tell for sure, but considering Galchenyuk’s progression so far, he has to be considered the favorite, even if he has yet to be auditioned in his natural position at the big league level. His numbers, meanwhile, seem to indicate a greater predisposition to passing rather than scoring, which is prototypically characteristic of a center as well.

Eller, conversely, may not end up the team’s No. 1 center of the future as a result, but he hasn’t lost out completely. He has clearly become its No. 1 center of the present.

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