BROSSARD, Quebec -- Coaches often say not to read too much into their line combinations, particularly on the first day of training camp. That was not the case at Montreal Canadiens camp Friday.
Ever since the Canadiens announced last week that Alex Galchenyuk would be used at center this season, there's been speculation as to which incumbent center would be moved to the wing to make room.
That question appeared to be answered Friday when Galchenyuk lined up between free agent acquisition Alexander Semin on the right side and former third-line center Lars Eller on the left. Eller has played wing in the past on numerous occasions and was never thrilled about it. But his tune changed Friday.
"I'm excited to play with two very, very skilled players," he said. "I think we can form a really dangerous line. I think we're going to have a lot of fun playing together."
Eller said he was under the impression that his move to left wing and his linemates should remain in place for the foreseeable future. This means that David Desharnais will remain at center for now, though it's not yet clear who his wings will be. Desharnais has played almost exclusively with new captain Max Pacioretty on his left side throughout his career, but Pacioretty is still recovering from fractures in the tibial plateau below his left knee and will not be skating with the team for at least another week or two.
Desharnais skated Friday with Jacob de la Rose on his left and Dale Weise on his right, while Tomas Plekanec had Tomas Fleischmann on his left and Brendan Gallagher on his right. It could be interpreted that Fleischmann, who is in camp on a professional tryout, was simply holding Pacioretty's spot.
Those combinations show the issue created by moving Eller to the wing.
Coach Michel Therrien began shifting the bulk of the difficult defensive responsibilities away from Plekanec and toward Eller last season. It was Eller who started his shifts outside the offensive most often among the team's regular centers last season, a role that had belonged to Plekanec for years.
If Plekanec is to remain in an offensive role and Eller is on the wing of a scoring line, who will take those difficult shifts? That is not a strength of Desharnais' game, though he is good in the faceoff circle, and there's only so many defensive zone draws Torrey Mitchell can be sent out for while centering the fourth line, particularly against opponents' top lines.
That doesn't appear to be Eller's problem for the time being, but a side effect of his move to left wing is that he will be getting offensive opportunities, something he has longed for.
Eller was the No 13 pick in the 2007 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues and was traded to Montreal on June 17, 2010, in the deal that sent goaltender Jaroslav Halak to the Blues. Since his arrival in Montreal, Eller has insisted he has the ability to produce offensively, although his numbers have yet to show it. His career high of 16 goals came in the 2011-12 season. He had a career-high with 30 points in 46 games in 2012-13, which would translate to 53 points in an 82-game season. That matches his exact production in the past two seasons combined; 53 points, but in 154 games.
The lack of production could be tied to his usage; he has received very little time on the power play and has played with less skilled linemates in more of a shutdown role. Playing with Galchenyuk and Semin should give Eller his first real opportunity at a top-six role, with Therrien already confirming Galchenyuk will center one of the top two lines. That might mean power-play time for Eller; it should definitely mean more offensive-zone starts.
"That's where I want to be," Eller said of a spot among the top-six forwards. "Me and [Galchenyuk] have played together before. It's really not a big difference. If I end up coming home [to the defensive zone] first, I'll play down low and play as the center anyways. I might end up taking a few faceoffs as well. In the big scheme of things, I really don't think it's a big deal."
The logic of placing Eller with Galchenyuk and Semin is not difficult to decipher. As a responsible defensive player, Eller could help protect Galchenyuk in his first season at center while also serving as a safety net for Semin, who has been known to have lapses defensively.
Eller insists he won't be changing his game if he plays with those two, and that's likely why Therrien put him there to begin with.
"I'm going to try to play the same way if I play on the third line or the second line or first line, winger or center," Eller said. "I'm not going to adjust my game based on what number of line I'm out there on or where I'm starting on the ice or whatever. I play the same way.
"I see myself as a big, strong skater who's got skill and who can do everything. It'll be fun to play with two really, really skilled players."