Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hockey: In Defence of Lars Eller

Posted originally on my Tumblr in October 2014.

The season is six games old and the Habs are a beautiful league leading 5-1. Pacioretty, Desharnais and Gallagher are buzzing, as are Galchenyuk, Plekanec and Parenteau. Malhotra is wowing the world with his skills as a phenomenal 4th liner, and Lars Eller is getting the Plekanec treatment, deployed largely in the defensive zone with meh wingers. People are already criticising his lack of offensive production and his seven goals against. I've heard that he needs to make more of an effort, that he looks terrible, and needs to step up his game. 
This is ridiculous. 
Despite being buried in the defensive zone, Eller's Corsi For was 42% in all situations, he personally had two shots on goal, was ROBBED of a goal, and had an assist. He was also part of the play that lead to the second Habs goal. (Yes he was on the ice for two goals against, the first one for sure was not a result of any play Eller could have controlled. I don't remember the second goal well enough to comment on it right now.)
Against Boston, Eller's CF was 50% (in all situations), and he started 33% of his shifts in the offensive zone. While he did not get an assist, he was part of the play that netted Sekac's first goal of the season.
Against the Flyers, in all situations his CF was 54% and he started a very cushy 75% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Only one of the game's 3  goals were scored with him on the ice, and he was absolutely ROBBED of one goal, possibly even two.
Against Toronto, his zone starts were the team low at 22% in all situations, his CF was at 50%, and he was only on the ice for ONE of the three goals scored against the Habs. As I ranted to a friend of mine, Desharnais was sheltered like a delicate flower in a storm (78% of his shifts started in the offensive zone!) and Eller wasn't -- in fact he was thrown head first into it. 
Additionally, before this Avs/Habs game, Eller was an absolute MONSTER in face off wins (54% against Toronto, 71% against Washington, 64% against the Flyers, 42% the awful game against Tampa, and 58% against Boston.) Against the Avs he was a miserable 29%, but he only TOOK nine face offs as opposed to nearly twice that amount on the previous nights (and on those nights, I remember looking at the percentages a few times and thinking oh wow... Eller's doing TERRIBLY, but then by the end of the game it had balanced out, so I'm fairly willing to bet if he'd taken more draws the numbers would have ended up looking much more like the numbers from previous games). 
In short, by and large, Eller's been buried in the defensive zone with an invisible winger who is criminally incapable of hitting the net, or sometimes of being in the right place at all, and a brand new NHLer. Like large portions of last year, his line seems to be made up of the rejects from the top six (though six games in, Sekac and Eller are showing signs of chemistry). He's been robbed of multiple goals, and had a few scored against when he was on the ice which were in no way his fault, and he trails only the big guns; Pacioretty, Gallagher, Plekanec, Subban and Parenteau in shots. Furthermore, his possession stats are amazing.
The Habs are using Eller like they used Plekanec in the past, and people are wondering why he's not scoring. (Meanwhile, Plekanec, with this year's equivalent of the EGG Line wingers is scoring quite nicely with fairly comfortable zone starts. Funny what happens when you give talented centres offensively talented wingers...) Of the TWENTY goals scored against the Habs in these six games, Eller was only on the ice for seven of them (and all but blameless in at least three). His +/- only looks so bad because his line hasn't been scoring. 
Against the Flyers and against the Avs, it took players physically hauling Eller down in front of the net and taking penalties to stop him from scoring on amazing plays. On the second Subban goal, an Avs player felt the need to stick his arm around Eller and completely block him out from any chance at taking a pass. He has the potential to be lethal, and teams know it. 
But to me, the most telling sign of Eller's value to the Habs, and their faith in him, is what happened in the last thirty seconds of the 3-2 Avs game. Roy had pulled his goalie for an extra attacker, and Therrien responded by icing his defensive guns to batten down the hatches, win the face offs and hold on to the lead. He deployed Eller, Malhotra and Prust. Malhotra, presumably to win the defensive zone face off, Eller to take the face off, should Malhotra get thrown out, and all three to be capable of holding off the Avalanche that was sure to follow. They did just that. 
The goals will come, and in the meantime, Lars Eller, like Plekanec before him, is performing a thankless and herculean task, and doing pretty damn well. 

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