Montreal Canadiens: What Line Should Lars Eller Play on This Season?

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Montreal Canadiens: What Line Should Lars Eller Play on This Season?
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A fellow blogger recently put out a challenge asking his cohorts to build their own lines for the upcoming 2010-2011 version of the Montreal Canadiens and the results were intriguing, to say the least.

One of the things I found most interesting was what the writers chose to do with rookie Lars Eller, who has had a solid camp and shown potential as a top-six forward—but will likely start the season as a 3rd line centreman.

Like several of my fellow Habs bloggers, I chose to start the season with Eller on the top line and I had several reasons for this decision as follows.


1. Offensive Support

Neither Benoit Pouliot nor Andrei Kostitsyn has ever shown sustained ability, willingness or desire to maintain their slots as top-six wingers.

Pouliot managed to get credit for two goals in the game versus the Islanders on Saturday, but the first was a direct result of hard work by Jeff Halpern that was all but spoon fed to him, and the second was mistakenly credited to Pouliot instead of Eller.

Kostitsyn, on the other hand, has had a much better camp this preseason and his centreman Tomas Plekanec maintains that the big winger is much more engaged and focused.

That said, AK46 has shown bouts of potential before, and tends to get red hot before he slumps into something resembling an iceberg.

I’m not convinced either player will prove to be any more offensive this season than they did last year, and if that’s the case the Habs are looking at another 26th place finish in goals scored.

If that does happen the Canadiens will be lucky to make the playoffs this season.

Meanwhile, Lars Eller has proven that he has the size, skill and speed required to produce on one of the top two lines. He sees the ice well, goes to the net, battles hard and can score goals.

His compete level alone is a major upgrade from both Pouliot and Kostitsyn.


2. Third Line Center

I know that Eller is a natural centreman, but I don’t think the third line will be as much disarray as it was last year.

Gone are Dominic Moore and Glen Metropolit, and Ben Maxwell is also likely to be sent back to Hamilton.

In my opinion, Pierre Gauthier signed Dustin Boyd along with Jeff Halpern this season to help fill the void left by the departing players.

Tom Pyatt and Maxim Lapierre are also capable of being anchors, so I don’t think the problem at centre for the third line is anywhere near as critical as the need for another top-six forward.

You can also add Ryan White to the list of potential third line centers—assuming he makes the roster.


3. Growth Potential

Eller’s young enough that even if he does turn into the projected second line center he’s supposed to become, he can’t get there anytime soon barring injury or trade.

Pouliot’s only on a one-year deal and Kostitsyn is in the final year of his contract. Eller’s in a fantastic position to win a long-term slot on the wing, learning and growing from some of the best veterans currently on the roster.

Keeping Eller on the third line seems like a misuse of time and effort. Why waste him for a year at center when he could be learning solid two- way play from Plekanec instead?


4. Salary Cap

If Eller does turn into a half-decent winger it would allow Gauthier to clear cap by moving Pouliot or Kostitsyn and maybe even someone like Moen, as Willey has suggested.

With the Habs tight against the cap it would afford a little more breathing room should the injury bug strike this season.

Despite my reasons for having Eller start the season as a top-six forward, I fully expect Jacques Martin to keep him as a third line center for much of the year. Since Kostitsyn had a great camp and Pouliot got a nifty raise I think it’s highly unlikely either one is getting bumped.

If Pouliot doesn’t find some inner drive though, Martin has shown willingness, in the past, to drop him down a couple of lines or bench him altogether—as he did during the playoffs. Kostitsyn will also need to maintain more focus and effort this year to prove he’s worthy of a new contract.

If either of them fails to produce or there’s another injury-riddled season ahead, I expect Eller to make the jump to the top-six, work his butt off as usual, and challenge to keep his new slot.

He’s really the only player with the skill set to make that transition, and I think it’s why Pierre Gauthier had the foresight to put a kid on the roster with that kind of flexibility.

Lars Eller might start off as a third line centerman this year, but I think he’ll finish the season on one of the top two lines. After that, I expect he’ll stay there.

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