As they say on RDS, “selon les échos de vestiaire”, according to the scuttlebutt from the locker room, Lars Eller stated clearly that he would play wing during training camp, and seemed to embrace it, he didn’t look like he was sucking on a lemon when he met the media.
It’s understandable, perfectly reasonable that the actual position players play is important to them, all sorts of value and pride is attached to it. You want to be the first-line centre, that’s the glamour position. You want to be at centre, directing your teammates, taking draws, having the spotlight on you. Nobody wants to be on the fourth line if they can help it, or the backup goalie.
Alex Galchenyuk was moved to the wing his last season with the Sarnia Sting to accommodate the team, since Charles Sarault was more effective at centre. Same with Steven Stamkos, who due to roster considerations, started on the wing in Tampa, graduated to centre, and now moved back to the wing.
Jeff Carter mostly plays centre now for the Kings, but for a while he also played a lot of wing, where he was effective with his size and big shot. Vincent Damphousse, Tyler Seguin, there are lots of examples of players who considered themselves centres who were effective on the wing. Heck, Evgeni Malkin sometimes plays wing on Sidney Crosby’s left when they need to stack one line. Even more heck, Mario Lemieux played on Wayne Gretzky’s wing. So if players like that can move to the wing, …
Lars grew up in Denmark as the best player in his age group. We saw on 24CH how he and Michael Boedker played on the same team and pushed each other for icetime and scoring championships. Eventually, Lars moved to Sweden to play in a more competitive environment and further his career aspirations. Again though, he was the best player on the ice, the leading scorer, etc.
His story isn’t much different than most players who eventually make the NHL, they all were dominant as youths and as they climbed the hockey ladder. The thing is, as they move into the larger ponds, most realize that they’re no longer the big fish, and they have to adapt, contribute in a different way. Many Junior scoring leaders become checking forwards in the NHL.
I’m floating a trial balloon here, but maybe Lars never had that epiphany. In his mind, he’s still destined to be a scoring leader, the best player on his team, the guy who wows teammates and foes and fans. Maybe that’s why we still see him going on stickhandling adventures, making low-percentage passes, trying to play keepaway with the puck instead of taking it to the net.
Marc Bergevin said of Lars last season that he had to play like a big player with skill, instead of a skilled player with some size. He’d done so in the 2014 playoffs, and the hope was that he would carry on that streak. Instead, we saw him revert on many nights to the uninvolved, undisciplined player that he could be from years past.
When there was a shakeup in previous seasons, and Lars got moved to the wing, he was ineffectual. I’m not ready to say that he sabotaged himself on the wing, that he willingly played poorly so that the coaches would put him back at centre, but I’m inclined to believe that he was mentally unable to ’embrace and thrive on change’, that he may have sulked, felt miscast, lost. And that was his loss and ours as fans of the team.
I’m encouraged by what may be a change in mindset by Lars. He may understand that there’s more competition for the Top 6 than in past seasons, there’s even competition for the third line, for a while he lost the centre position to Jacob de la Rose last season. And with Michaël Bournival’s recurring concussion problems, young Mr. de la Rose ain’t going anywhere.
With that in mind, Lars may understand that playing Top 6 on left wing wouldn’t be so bad for him, for his career, rather than being marooned on the third line, possibly facing demotion to the fourth if some of those kids start really pushing for jobs. He may have a more positive attitude, may look on the bright side. Playing with the Alexes on a scoring line wouldn’t be a bad deal.
Further, even though Lars may still see himself as the next Mats Sundin, maybe playing left wing is more in line with his skillset. He’ll have an easier job description, won’t have to be responsible for feeding savant passes to his wingers. His decision-making will be simplified. Maybe he can start playing like the big player with size that Marc Bergevin wants, with a lighter load on the wing.
It will be one of many interesting scenarios to watch unfold this year at training camp, and it dovetails with the idea that training camp competition is always a good thing. If it allows Lars to show this flexibility and accept a possibly temporary move to the wing, it’ll make him a more valuable forward and player and Canadien.