Many scouts who watched Eller star in Sweden's Under-20 SuperElit league, as well as the Division I Under-20 and Division I Under-18 World Championships for Denmark, think the center is up to the challenge. He is considered one of the best skaters in the draft and a top-notch playmaker.
Some have even likened his raw skill level to Detroit Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg at the same age, while Jens Gustavsson, Eller's coach with Frölunda, has called him "Denmark's answer to Peter Forsberg."
Previously, the highest-selected players from Denmark were the New York Islanders' Frans Nielsen (who became the first Danish citizen to play in the NHL) and Ottawa Senators prospect Peter Regin. Both were taken in the third round, 87th overall in their respective draft years. Nielsen was taken in 2002, Regin in 2004.
How does Eller respond to the lofty comparisons and to the honor of being the first Dane to crack the top round of the draft?
"It's a big motivator, it makes me want to work even harder. But I know I've got a lot to learn yet. (The praise) gives me a lot of confidence, but I have to prove myself still," he said. "We'll have to see how I pan out." Strong hockey pedigree
Born in Rødovre, Denmark, Eller comes from a hockey family. His father, Olaf, was a former Danish national team player. Blessed with a sharp mind for the game, the former defenseman later coached in Sweden for minor league team Troja/Lungby and, more recently, became the head coach of Danish Oddset Ligaen team Frederikshavn Whitehawks.
"Lars' father has always been a good teacher to him, giving him the right advice," says former Frölunda player Patrik Aronsson, who along with fellow Frölunda alumnus (and former NHLer) Patrik Carnbäck, serves as Eller's agent in Europe.
The younger Eller rocketed through the ranks of Danish junior hockey, earning a spot on Rødovre's Under-19 team for the 2004-05 season at the tender age of 15. The youngster dominated, scoring 21 goals and racking 26 assists for 47 points in 28 games.
Emil Olsén, the junior program director for the Frölunda Indians in Göteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden, took notice of the youngster's talents. One of the most highly respected development programs in Europe, Frölunda has been at the forefront of creating a scouting and recruiting pipeline to the Danish junior leagues, which have shown enormous improvement over the last decade and now produces an ever-growing number of prospects with NHL potential.
Olaf Eller's advice to his son: Take advantage of the opportunity to further your skills against tougher competition. As much as Danish hockey has improved at all levels, it still can't compete with the top hockey powers like Sweden.
Sixteen year old Lars Eller made his debut for Frölunda's Under-18 team in September 2005. After eight games (in which he put up a solid six points), he was promoted to the Under-20 squad. A bit undersized, weak physically and still extremely inexperienced, he had to use his anticipation and puck skills to survive. In 36 games at the J20 SuperElit level, Eller scored a commendable 14 points (seven goals, seven assists). NHL scouts take notice
Coming into the 2006-07 season, the consensus view of Eller was that he was a potential second- or third-round pick in the draft. While skilled, he was undersized and lacked the strength to win a lot of battles along the boards.
But a funny thing happened. As teenagers are wont to do, Eller rapidly grew by several inches and started to fill out his frame. By the end of the season, he stood 6-feet tall and weighed close to 200 pounds. Meanwhile, his skills on the ice burgeoned at the SuperElit level. During the two-phase regular season, he scored 18 goals and compiled 37 assists in 39 games for 55 points.
"Lars is very determined in his goal-settings, both as an individual and a team player. He has a fantastic attitude to improve his game every day. I can honestly say I don't see any weaknesses in his offensive game," says Frölunda coach Gustavsson. "What Eller needs to continue improving, like most young players, is his play without the puck. But Lars had a fantastic season. He has led the team with his play in a very mature way."
Eller, who also won over 50 percent of his faceoffs and posted a solid plus-22 defensive rating, often played on the same line as fellow 2007 draftee, Simon Hjalmarsson , who was selected by St. Louis in the second round, 39th overall.
In December, Eller joined Team Denmark at the 2007 Division I Under-20 Championships, which were played in Eller's home country. The prize the teams compete for in the tournament: the right to be promoted to the elite World Junior Championship the following year. Coming into the tournament, Latvia was the favorite to be promoted, followed closely by the Danes.
Once an afterthought for NHL scouts, the tournament now draws wider attention, because a sprinkling of future NHLers from secondary hockey countries have starred in the tournament. Among others, Thomas Vanek (Austria) and Anze Kopitar (Slovenia) competed in the Division I World Juniors.
Eller didn't disappoint the scouts who made the trip to Denmark. In five games, he scored twice and added five assists as well as an excellent plus-six defensive rating. Denmark won the tournament and the right to compete at the 2008 IIHF World Under-20 Championships.
Returning to Frölunda's J20 team, Eller finished out the season strong. By now there was talk of him sneaking into the first round of the NHL draft. In the SuperElit playoffs, Eller ramped up his goal scoring, tallying four goals in eight games. He scored both Frölunda goals in the clinching game of the SuperElit finals against Djurgården. Earlier in the series, he set up a key goal by Patrik Carlsson to give the Indians a quick jump on Djurgården in a game Frölunda ultimately won, 4-1.
Eller then topped off his breakout junior season with a dominating performance for Team Denmark at the Division I Under-18 Championships. The favored Danes cruised through the round-robin tourney, with Eller serving as a key catalyst. Eller did as he pleased against his overmatched opponents, and rang up 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in five games.
For the first time in Danish hockey history, the country will compete at the elite level in every major international tournament (the IIHF World Championships, World Under-20 Championships, and World Under-18 Championships). Eller was understandably proud of this accomplishment.
"It's great for hockey in Denmark," he said. "We had a good team, and the only way to continue to improve is to play the top countries. It's an unbelievable feeling."
Eller finished third in Central Scouting's rankings of European prospects. Only Alexei Cherepanov and Mikael Backlund – both of whom played in senior leagues this year – ranked higher. There were whispers that at least two Western Conference teams and one Eastern Conference team were seriously considering Eller with one of their first round picks.
The question was no longer whether Eller would get into the first round. Rather, it was how high would he go and could he bypass at least one of the two players ranked ahead of him. Even when it was revealed at the NHL Draft Combine that Eller was nursing a shoulder injury (which is considered minor), he was still considered a likely first-rounder.
The Blues make their move
|The St. Louis Blues had Eller slated as the top-eligible prospect in Europe. |
One of the three clubs rumored to be scouting Eller the most intensely was the St. Louis Blues. Although Blues Assistant GM Jarmo Kekäläinen, who oversees the draft and scouting operations, followed standard procedure and declined to confirm or deny interest in Eller prior to the draft, he did let it be known to NHL.com that he was impressed with the Frölunda system's ability to identify and develop top-quality junior prospects.
Sure enough, the Blues' scouts were keen on taking the young Dane. The club ranked the hard-working forward as the top draft-eligible prospect in Europe -- higher than Backlund and even Cherepanov (who set a Russian Super League rookie goal scoring record this season and starred at both the Under-20 and Under-18 Worlds Championships).
Recognizing that they could still probably get Eller if they traded down a few spots from the ninth pick, St. Louis flipped the pick to the San Jose Sharks for the 13th overall pick, the 44th overall pick and a third-rounder in 2008. After highly regarded American defenseman Ryan McDonagh went to the Montreal Canadiens with the 12th pick, the Blues had their man.
"Our guys have been talking about Eller for weeks," Blues President John Davidson said after the draft, "He's got a huge skill set, he's fast and he's got top-two line potential without question. We're thrilled with that."
For his part, Eller suspected St. Louis might be destination. The Blues came into the draft with the ninth, 24th and 26th overall picks and he had met with Blues' officials three times prior to the draft -- once in Europe, once at the Draft Combine and finally the day before the draft in Columbus.
"I knew they had a very good eye on me, and I think they were probably the team that showed the most interest," Eller said.
Later in the first round the Blues traded up from the 24th pick to the 18th spot, previously occupied by the Calgary Flames. St. Louis chose Notre Dame University bound Team USA defenseman Ian Cole. Finally, with the 26th pick, the Blues took QMJHL sniper David Perron of the Lewiston MAINEiacs.
When can Blues fans expect to see Eller in St. Louis? That's hard to determine at this point. Eller himself says it wouldn't be fair to speculate.
"I don't know if it will take two years, three years or more. I don't have plans that far in the future, but of course the NHL is my goal," he said to the Danish media.
Aronsson says his client recognizes that while the foundation for an NHL career has been laid, there's still a lot of skill-building left to be done.
"To be the first Dane ever picked in the first round is very nice, of course, but Lars knows that alone doesn't mean he'll make it to the NHL. It doesn't matter if you go in the first round or the sixth round, it's what you do to earn that chance," Aronsson says.