Poor Lars Eller. The kid emerging as the Canadiens number-one centreman made a critical error that bought him a one-way ticket to his coach's post-Oilers'-game doghouse. He didn't fail to engage the opponent physically. He didn't have a mental lapse that led to a crucial goal or take a dumb penalty. Nope. Eller made the uncommon mistake of telling the truth.
When asked what he could expect from the Oilers prior to last night's game, Eller would have been wiser to reply "They're a good, fast young team. We expect them to come out flying and we have to be ready." End of answer. That's what the vast majority of other NHLers would have said. Instead, he actually gave a thoughtful and honest analysis of the team he'd played once already this month. "It can be anything, you know? They play a little bit like a junior
team, I think, sometimes,” he said. “They take a lot risks, a lot of chances. They’re a little all over
the place. There’s not a lot of structure always in their game. It can
really be anything. You don’t know."
There was nothing untrue there. Eller observed a young team that sometimes plays a disorganized game as it tries to find consistency. However, in media scrums where cliche is king, Eller's openness became a lightning rod for a thin-skinned opposing coach. The Great Dane is in good company. Remember Tomas Plekanec in the 2008 playoffs, when he was asked about his performance against the Bruins? He answered, "The last couple of games I played like a little girl out there." While the papers commended him for his frankness, critics and opponents have never forgotten to throw that back at him years later.
Remember in 2010, prior to Game One against Washington? Somebody asked Plekanec how his eighth-place Canadiens matched up with the powerhouse Caps. He said: "It's not as though we are facing Brodeur or Miller. They don't have a dominant goaltender. When
you look at the goaltending matchup in this series it favours our team.
I just believe that our goaltending is more solid than theirs."
That was an honest assessment too, and one with which few could argue, given the respective records and histories of the goalies involved. The only way Plekanec saved himself from prolonged ridicule in that case was by blasting the Game One OT winner past a flat-footed Jose Theodore, and helping his team win that series. Then there was Brandon Prust and his response to Senator's coach Paul Maclean, after Maclean blamed Raphael Diaz for Lars Eller's Game One concussion and face-rearrangement last year.
Prust gave as good as his team got, calling Maclean a "bug-eyed fat walrus." While great fodder for photoshoppers everywhere, Prust's comments ended up being used against him as the Sens took control of the series. Both Prust and Plekanec learned the hard way to keep colour out of their commentary. Now, unfortunately, Lars Eller is receiving the same lesson. That means one less guy will feel free to voice his actual opinion, and will, instead retreat into the trite and meaningless.
The irony is, while various coaches like to use the words of opponents to pump up their teams, it's never the words that make the difference. The Canadiens didn't get eliminated in the playoffs because Tomas Plekanec called himself a little girl or Brandon Prust said Paul Maclean was a fat walrus. They got eliminated because a series of unfortunate events; injuries, timely errors, poor overall player performances, better opposition, added up to an early vacation. In just the same way, the Habs did not lose to Edmonton because the Oilers coach was furious at Lars Eller.
They lost because every single player GM Marc Bergevin acquired to improve the team last summer (every one!) is injured. They lost because the defence that needed shoring up the moment Alexei Emelin went down with a knee injury last April is just as badly off as it was then. They lost because Max Pacioretty is out (again) with another of the myriad of injuries that seem to sideline him whenever he just starts to get rolling. They lost because their lack of forward depth has Travis Moen playing shifts in the top-six. And they lost because, for some inexplicable reason, they failed to show up for the second period, which has been a persistent issue under Michel Therrien's coaching system. They did not lose because Lars Eller frankly evaluated his opponent in a pre-game interview.
It's easy for Therrien to say Eller's comment was "unacceptable." It's much more difficult for him to find a reasonable answer for the team's consistent second-period slump, and why his team is 18th in the league in wins after holding a first-period lead. It's harder to say why his team has a discipline issue. The Habs are 24th in the NHL in times shorthanded, having played fewer games than many other teams. Therrien would rather talk about Eller than about why the Habs PK ranks 18th in the league, while Norris winner PK Subban plays 1:11 a night shorthanded and Andrei Markov and Raphael Diaz (!) more than three minutes per game.
Lars Eller and his honest comments gave Therrien a chance to talk about something other than his own team's problems. And, rest assured, there are problems. Some will be alleviated when the injured players return. Some are systemic and must be solved at a basic systems or philosophical level. Either way, Eller is the least of the Habs problems. This team needed to beat Edmonton because it's not going to get any easier with a slate of big, hungry Western teams on the schedule this year.
As for Dallas Eakins, he can gloat and call out a guy like Eller all he likes, but if he listened closely to what the kid said, he'd have heard the ring of truth in those comments. He might laugh now, but his team is far from having a playoff spot locked up at this point. So, in the end, all he did was give the media a distraction from both the Habs and the Oilers problems, and make sure one more guy in an NHL dressing room never speaks his mind again.