Over the past two seasons we've all seen Lars Eller become a very dependable defensive center, but being drafted so high and having the Halak trade lingering over his head, everyone wanted to see some offense. We got flashes of that last year when he scored 16 goals, but nothing like what Eller has been able to accomplish this year.
Make no mistake about it, Eller started the year off pretty terribly. We got on Michel Therrien for making the choice to scratch him, but Eller wasn't bringing it the way he can. When he was brought back into the lineup, it was on the 4th line or on the wing, and it took him until about game 7 to begin breaking out, as you can see by his 10 game rolling averages:
Eller has been a good possession player before for the Canadiens, specifically when he's been zonally sheltered like Desharnais usually is. What Eller hasn't been able to do consistently though, is outperform his zone starts. As you can see from the graph, he he starts slow, but by game 7 (his 5th game), he's now caught his zone starts. By game 13, his role begins to get much more difficult, and he begins to outperform his zone starts.
Eller still has a ways to go, as his first half possession overall is negative, and his scoring chance differential leaves much to be desired, but his production level is out of this world. Playing with linemates who can actually put the puck in the net has allowed Eller to show off his playmaking ability, while playing near Plekanec level tough competition in tougher zone starts.
I'm not going to do this for anyone else, as it's kind of cheating in a way since this is a review of the first half, but take a look at how Eller is trending since the halfway point of the season. This is Eller's rolling 10 game averages up to game 29:
This data can not be factored into his first half grade, but it gives us a hint of what's to come with Lars, and I think that's something very impressive.
Last season Eller rarely ever played on the powerplay, even though his results there were fairly impressive. He's playing just a tiny bit more often while up a man this season, and the results have been astounding. His shot production, point production, and scoring chances created per 60 minutes are all first wave material thus far. An argument could easily be made that he should be receiving some of the powerplay time gifted to Desharnais. He also has the highest risk/reward rating on the powerplay among forwards, and overall only Subban outdoes him there.
Shorthanded situations were where Eller stood out from the pack last year, but like Plekanec, he's taken a step back this season. Unlike Plekanec though, Eller isn't giving up any more chances than the year before. Last season Eller allowed 29.49 scoring chances against per 60 minutes on the PK, while this year he's allowing 29.37, a slight improvement. So why is his differential worse? Because this year's edition of the PK is not dangerous offensively.
Last season Eller was accumulating 8.49 scoring chances for the Habs while shorthanded for every 60 minutes played. This year? 2.10, less than 25% of what he was able to do last year. Part of that is the increased amount of time the Habs have been under siege while a man down. Eller has limited scoring chances, but his Corsi on the PK is -81.58 in comparison to -56.41 last year. Nearly 30 extra shot attempts going the wrong way every 60 minutes.
Eller is still a stalwart penalty killer though, ranking 3rd in scoring chance differential and second in risk/reward among forwards.
Eller is being graded as a tough minutes, 3rd line center who can provide some offense. His production levels and special teams work would have him graded at way above average expectations, likely the best Eller has ever played, but we can not ignore his below average possession numbers. It's important to remember that is a grade for Eller's first 22 games, not his last 5. I fully expect his second half will result in a much higher grade, but due to a very high PDO and mediocre possession, I can only award him an average grade.
First half grade: 7/10
To see how Eller's performance has changed, check out last year's review.