There’s been plenty of talk about the PK Subban – Shea Weber trade, and for good reason, but there was another trade that had a big impact on the Canadiens’ roster, the one that sent Lars Eller to Washington in return for a pair second round picks in the 2017 and 2018 draft. The trade also made room to acquire and sign Andrew Shaw to a six-year 23 million dollar contract, and freed up a spot at center on the Canadiens’ third line.
Lars Eller is really everything you could want in a third line center. He’s got size, he skates well with the puck, and he might be as good defensively as any bottom six forward in the league. In theory, he’s perfectly suited to fit in to what’s supposed to be a tougher, grittier Habs team on a shutdown line that’s also expected to chip in offensively. But by trading him, the Canadiens made the de facto decision to slot David Desharnais into that position, and for the exact same 3.5 million dollar cap hit.
It goes without saying that Desharnais doesn’t have Eller’s size, and to make matters worse, his offensive effectiveness has also taken a sharp downturn in recent seasons. The fact that Desharnais’s contract ends after this season while Eller’s lasts until 2018 could help to explain the trade, but there is another scenario that could bode worse for Habs fans.
We can’t change the past, but it’s worth asking if Marc Bergevin would have rather kept Lars Eller instead, if only he could find a taker for Desharnais; or was it simply the plan to trade Eller all along? If Bergevin did shop Desharnais around but had to settle for a pair of second round draft picks to ship out of Eller instead, what does that say about the shape of the roster this season?
Theoretically, a third line of Lars Eller, Andrew Shaw, and any number of wingers from Daniel Carr to Phillip Danault to Artturi Lehkonen could stifle top lines of opposing teams while chipping in offensively from time to time. With Desharnais filling that slot instead, the pressure to contribute offensively goes up, since in theory, his line wouldn’t be as capable at tackling the toughest defensive assignments.
Eller was leaned on heavily to kill penalties, something Desharnais is rarely asked to do. And while Eller had half as much power play time as Desharnais last season, he managed 11 power play shots to Desharnais’s 12.
Desharnais racked up points at a rate of 1.75 for every 60 minutes of ice time last season, while Eller averaged just 1.30, but Desharnais’s numbers are down from 2.04 points/60 the season before, and 2.30 in 2014. Eller has maintained a fairly consistent productivity range over that span, but he’s also never shown flashes again of the 2.64 points/60 he achieved in the lockout shortened 2013 season. Still, given the direction each player is trending, it will be a challenge for Desharnais to outproduce Eller this season.
The 2016-2017 campaign has just started, but it already seems evident that, given his versatility, Eller would have been an upgrade over Desharnais in the third line center slot.
In the end, Habs fans are left to wonder whether Bergevin decided keeping Desharnais was the better option, or whether none of the 29 other NHL teams would even take Desharnais if Bergevin threw in extra perks like draft picks or prospects.
There are a couple other factors at play here that are also worth mentioning. The development of Michael McCarron, who is shaping up to be a big part of the Habs future, as well as the acquisition of Danault, who could also be called upon this season to fill the role if and when injuries strike. If another player steps up, it’s possible to see Desharnais on the trading block at the deadline regardless of where the Habs are positioned. And if Desharnais fends off all other challengers, the internal competition could still help get the most out of the veteran center.