BROSSARD, Quebec – While Scott Gomez was never expected to play a major role on the 2012-13 Montreal Canadiens, his sudden departure prior to the start of training camp Sunday nevertheless creates a void on the team that a young player could be expected to slide into.
And from the sounds of it, coach Michel Therrien may want that young player to be Lars Eller.
"I saw Lars Eller play the last few years, and he's at a stage where he's got to take another step," Therrien said Monday after the second day of training camp. "He's got potential, he's a young player and he's still developing, but there's a time in a career where you want a player to bring his game to another level and this is what I'm expecting from him."
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Eller, 23, is entering his third full season with the Canadiens after arriving in the trade that sent goaltender Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues. The No. 13 pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, Eller has long been seen as a player with an excellent skill set -- a strong skater with good size and quick hands -- but those skills have yet to produce the desired results at the NHL level.
Last season Eller scored 16 goals in 78 games -- more than doubling his total of seven goals in his first season in Montreal -- but four of those came in a single game. Eller spent much of the season bouncing around from line to line and also from his natural center position to the wing, never managing to carve himself a defined role on a club that admittedly was in constant flux on its way to a last place finish in the Eastern Conference.
With Gomez now out of the picture after he was sent home by the team Sunday, it creates a bit less of a logjam at center for the Canadiens, but Eller may still be asked to play on a wing and he still may have to find a way to take that next step in his career in a third line role.
The Canadiens first line appears to be set with David Desharnais between Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole, a trio that was among the most productive in the NHL last season. The second line should be pivoted by Tomas Plekanec -- who has yet to skate with the team at training camp as he nurses a minor rib injury incurred while playing in Europe during the lockout -- with Brian Gionta playing on the right wing.
That's when things get interesting.
The left wing spot on that line is currently being filled in camp by the No. 3 pick at the 2012 NHL Draft, Alex Galchenyuk, and he's filling it quite admirably thus far. However, Eller is centering that line in Plekanec's absence, and it's entirely possible Therrien could ask him to slide over to left wing once Plekanec returns. It's also possible Eller could remain at his preferred position of center to play between Rene Bourque and Travis Moen on a potential third line.
But whatever happens, Eller does appear to agree with his coach -- it is time for him to make his mark in the NHL.
"I'm still aiming to be a top-six player, that's where I want to be. I don't think I put a timeframe on it, but obviously you want it to be as fast as possible and every day you're not there, you're anxious to get there," Eller said. "I think we both agree that my goal should be to be a top-six player and [Therrien]'s going to help me to get there. We're going to work to get to that goal."
Eller admitted that while there aren't as many young players pushing veterans for spots on the team in this year's shortened training camp, the sense of internal competition at Canadiens camp to grab certain roles on the club is heightened.
"I think there's been good intensity here the first two days," he said. "I think when you finish 15th in the conference last year, there should be good intensity. Guys should be battling hard against each other. Things are, in my mind, exactly as they should be right now."
Therrien said the added competition at training camp, particularly in the absence of a veteran like Gomez, is opening a door for the team's young players Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Jarred Tinordi and Gabriel Dumont to have a positive influence on the club's fortunes this season.
"Every team needs to have depth," Therrien said. "The depth of a hockey team can bring you a long way. It can bring you all the way to the playoffs. But right now, our depth is the young guys."
One young guy in particular appears to be shuffling the deck a little bit more than expected.
Galchenyuk had a chance Monday to showcase his skills when Therrien held a shootout competition to close practice. The rookie hopeful first made an outstanding deke on backup goaltender Peter Budaj to score on his first attempt then did the same thing at the other end to starter Carey Price, wowing the crowd of hundreds of fans watching the session.
But aside from that, Galchenyuk has looked quite comfortable playing alongside Eller and Gionta in drills and scrimmages.
"One thing that he showed today is that he's got tremendous skill. We've got a special player," Therrien said. "I like his speed, I like his vision with the puck, he's got a lot of poise with it, he's got a great shot. So there are a lot of good things to work with."
With no exhibition games on the schedule, evaluating Galchenyuk's potential to play in the NHL prior to opening night Saturday will be difficult for Therrien and Canadiens management. For that reason, it's likely that Galchenyuk gets a five-game tryout before a decision is made whether to send him back to the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League or to keep him and burn a year of his entry-level contract.
"I still think I have a pretty good chance of making it," Galchenyuk said Monday. "I try not to think about that too much, I just want to take it day by day and see what happens."
Should Galchenyuk ultimately make the team, the internal competition for offensive roles on the Canadiens will become that much more intense, and that depth Therrien is seeking becomes that much deeper.