Seven games into the season last year, Lars Eller had five goals and two assists, lighting the league on fire on what was emerging as the Montreal Canadiens' top line with Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Over the following 70 games, Eller only managed seven more goals, and 19 more points, on the way to his most disappointing offensive season since his rookie year.
With just one assist in seven games this year, to go along with an ugly -6 rating, on the surface it looks like Eller is off to a start similar to the latter 70 games, and the critics are creeping out.
I've already talked about why plus/minus doesn't matter, but what hasn't been accounted for is that Eller has been, thus far, put in Tomas Plekanec's role from last season. Manny Malhotra is doing mop up duty against opposing fourth lines, but Eller is the one taking the heavy competition, and he's doing so while being stuck in the defensive zone for most of his shifts.
Take a look at the following player usage chart from War on Ice, with the x-axis showing the percentage of offensive zone starts each player is on for, the y-axis showing the Corsi percentage of the skaters each player is facing, the greater the size of the bubble, the more raw defensive zone starts each player has been on for, and the colour of the bubble indicating that player's on-ice Corsi percentage, blue being above 50%, red being below 50%.
Not only is Eller's line positive, but they're positive in spite of taking the toughest minutes on the team. Only Manny Malhotra, Tom Gilbert, and Andrei Markov have taken more defensive zone starts at even strength, and only Markov of those remains above water in possession.
In fact, when you account for neutral zone faceoffs instead of omitting them, which classic zone start numbers do, only Malhotra has taken a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than Eller's 42.3%.
Yet in spite of that usage, Eller is tied with P.A. Parenteau for the fifth most shots on goal per 60 minutes of play at even strength, and has a 52.5% Corsi for percentage. In fact, in spite of significantly worse linemates, and tougher minutes, Eller has better possession numbers right now than Tomas Plekanec.
This isn't to say he's been better than Plekanec, who has four goals and eight points, and has been the lynchpin in multiple Habs comeback wins, but it does give some inclination to how well Lars Eller has been playing, without really getting rewarded.
Eller also hasn't got much help from his linemates in terms of scoring. Jiri Sekac lit the lamp against Boston, and seems to work very well with Eller overall, but Rene Bourque can't seem to get the puck on his stick properly at any point, in spite of doing a lot of good things.
Bourque is crashing the net, going to the dirty areas, playing okay defensively, yet every time the puck is passed to him, it hops over his stick. Because Sekac is more of a playmaker and rarely shoots (Sekac's 7.89 shot attempts per 60 minutes at even strength is even lower that David Desharnais), Bourque's completion rate is extremely important for Eller's point production, and it just isn't there so far.
The lack of goalscoring from that line isn't for lack of effort, or even poor play, it's simply that they aren't getting the bounces right now. Eller's fortunes could be improved if Bourque gets hot, but long term he's not a player the Canadiens can rely on anyway. Whether it's Michael Bournival, or perhaps Sven Andrighetto, getting a winger who is less mistake prone onto that line with Eller and Sekac should be a priority, because all they need is a couple bounces to go their way.