By Heather Engel
The 2013-14 campaign was a tale of two seasons for Lars Eller. Now armed with a new four-year, $14 million contract, he’s looking to stick with the one that helped him earn it.
After putting up just 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 77 games – a drop-off from the career-high 30 recorded in the lockout-shortened season – Eller rebounded in a big way in the playoffs. His 13 points in 17 games led all Canadiens forwards in the team’s run to the Eastern Conference Final and was just one shy of P.K. Subban’s team-high total. He also finished in a four-way tie for second among the club’s post-season goal-scorers with five goals.
“Of course it’s been a very mixed season for me performance-wise and certainly my playoffs probably helped my situation, there’s no doubt about that. But this goes longer than just one playoffs. It’s a relationship,” the center said on a conference call from Toronto’s Pearson Airport, on his way back to his native Denmark. “I’ve been here for four years now and (general manager) Marc (Bergevin) and the whole management knows me. We got to know each other well; they know what they have in me and I know what I have in them.”
Acquired in exchange for goaltender Jaroslav Halak in June 2010, Eller has shown flashes of a strong offensive game over the years but hasn’t been able to deliver on a regular basis. That he’s bounced around between the wing and his natural center spot – where he’s looked most comfortable – and has at times been saddled with linemates not known for their offense likely hasn’t helped.
Still, the 25-year-old knows it’s on him to take his game to the next level.
“I think the number one thing for me is consistency. I know when I’m on top of my game, there’s not much I want to change,” said Eller, who recorded just seven points (three goals, four assists) from Jan. 2 through April 5. “I want to improve in every area but I think most of all, consistency. I still think there’s something to gain in my offensive game and that’s probably where I can improve the most.”
His deal matches the one signed by teammate David Desharnais 16 months earlier. It also comes with new expectations for a player whose production potential has yet to be determined. Eller, though, isn’t worried about the added spotlight.
“A lot of times, your salary, your expectations and pressure go hand in hand, and I’ve seen that here in Montreal. But I put a lot of pressure on myself, too,” he said. “I think it also speaks to how much the organization believes in me and has faith in me. It’s really nice to know that they showed me that faith and now it’s up to me to go out and play the best hockey I can.”
Thursday’s agreement allowed Eller and the Canadiens to avoid Friday’s scheduled arbitration hearing. The process can be tough, with the potential for a player’s confidence to take a rather large hit.
“Of course it goes through your mind and once you file, you know it’s a possibility so you just have to be realistic with that, knowing that it could go that way. If I wasn’t fine with that then I wouldn’t have filed,” he noted. “But that being said, a longer term deal was something both sides were working towards through this whole process so going to arbitration was really more of a last resort if all other options failed. It’s not something we wanted to do but it’s something if we had to, we would have.”
He becomes the latest member of the Canadiens’ growing core to ink a long-term deal under Bergevin’s tenure, joining Desharnais, Alexei Emelin (four years), Max Pacioretty and Carey Price (both six years).
“We are very pleased to have agreed upon a long term agreement with Lars Eller. He is an important part of our group of young veterans,” Bergevin said in a statement. “He has a tremendous work ethic and a great attitude. He is the type of player you can rely on for his play at both ends of the rink.
“Lars can play big minutes against the opponents’ top players and still be an offensive threat. We are confident he will reach his full potential and become an impact player who will compete at a high level for many years to come.”
The deal leaves one name on Bergevin’s to-do list: Subban, who also filed for arbitration. A hefty raise looms for the star blue-liner, whose hearing is slated for Aug. 1, the final day of the arbitration period.