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Lars Eller is a lot better than you think, here's why

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The oft-criticized Great Dane has had yet another inconsistent offensive year, yet he remains criminally underrated by the hometown media and fanbase.

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Outside of P.K. Subban, there isn't anyone in the Montreal Canadiens organization that gets more unfair scrutiny than Lars Eller. The complaints about Eller usually stem from his point totals, which many believe should be significantly higher. On the surface that seems like a valid criticism, if you're paying your third line center $3.5M per year, you probably expect more than 30 points, and he may fail to hit that mark for the second straight year.

The thing is, none of the Canadiens' current top three centers are "do it yourself" offensive players. There's no Sidney Crosby there, no Evgeni Malkin. What all of Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, and Eller are though, are complementary centers with unique skillsets.

Plekanec is the closest thing the Habs have to a center who carries his line offensively, but he struggles to do that at even strength. Where Plekanec truly excels offensively is on the powerplay, where he is the Canadiens' best offensive producer over the last three seasons.

What these players can produce at even strength is important, because when comparing them, you have to realize that they play very different kinds of minutes. For example, Desharnais has played 357 more minutes on the powerplay the last three years more than Eller has. That has a gigantic impact on point totals, and it's only one of a multitude of factors.

Consistency of linemates

This isn't something that's discussed concretely very often, but it's important for players to produce. Fans like to complain about coaches blending the lines, which is something almost all of them do regularly, but most centers have at least one common winger to spend at least half their ice time with, but Eller doesn't.

linemates

What you can see from the above graph is that there's a great disparity in consistency of linemates among the Habs' top three centers, with Desharnais getting the cushiest spot of them all, playing over 71% of his even strength ice time with Max Pacioretty, and over 45% with Brendan Gallagher.

Surprisingly, an even larger share of Plekanec's ice time was spent with Brian Gionta, over 80%, until he was let go in free agency this past summer. Since Gionta was let go, it's been Alex Galchenyuk who has been Plekanec's wing man. Because Galchenyuk was Eller's most common linemate the previous two years, this has even further thrown Eller's production into flux.

While it makes sense that the third line center will have less-consistent linemates than the top-two, spending less than a third of his total ice time over three years with his most common linemates is pretty sad, and a difficult situation to work with.

Quality of linemates

Consistency of linemates matters, but what's even more important is who you're playing with. Just looking at each center's two most common wingers, we can see the vastly different situations each center plays in.

linemates 2

Desharnais' most common linemates score near double the goals per minute that Eller's most common linemates do, and produce nearly double the shots as well. Eller's most common linemates also have a negative impact on his possession numbers, while Plekanec's are slightly positive, and Desharnais' are massively positive.

Breaking down production

Even before you factor in zone starts, it's essentially impossible for Eller or Plekanec to produce at the same rate at even strength as what Desharnais does, yet, they're not far off.

Over the last three seasons, Desharnais has produced 1.82 points per 60 minutes, while Plekanec has produced 1.55, and Eller has produced 1.51. It probably comes as a fairly big surprise to people that Eller has produced at a nearly identical rate to Plekanec at even strength, but it's true.

For all the comments about Eller lacking hockey sense, it doesn't really make sense as a criticism that he could produce as much offensively as Tomas Plekanec, who has great hockey sense, with inferior linemates.

Taking it one step further, over the last three seasons, Eller has produced 4.0 points per 60 minutes on the powerplay, not as good as Plekanec's 4.8, but significantly better than Desharnais' 3.31, which begs the question of what could Eller do given the linemates Desharnais has boasted the last three years.

This is a player who has never been given an extended period of time with any real opportunity to produce, and in all likelihood is at least as good offensively as both the other centers on the team. Is Eller inconsistent? Yes, he is. And that has far more to do his situation than his performance.