ARLINGTON | After last season’s second-round playoff exit at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was clear the Washington Capitals had to address the lack of scoring in their bottom six.
Enter former Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller.
After the Capitals opted against resigning Mike Richards and decided Jay Beagle is better suited for a more defensive role within the fourth line, general manager Brian MacLellan by made the deal for Eller by sending two second-round draft picks, a 2017 and a 2018, to Montreal in exchange for the 27-year-old Danish center.
It’s the second time Eller has been traded in his relatively young career. Drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 2007, Eller was sent to Montreal as part of a package deal that brought goaltender Jaroslav Halak to the Blues. The timing of this most recent trade was great for Eller.
“It’s new inspiration for me,” Eller said this week as the Caps prepared for Thursday night’s season opener against the Penguins. “New faces, new everything. I think this change comes at a good time for me and I’m really excited to get started. I feel really energized.”
Eller didn’t elaborate on just why it was a good time for him to change teams. But it may have something to do with the fact that Eller never really had a defined role with Montreal. Sometimes he lined up as a center. Sometimes he was a left wing. Sometimes he played on the top line and sometimes he played on the third line. And his linemates constantly changed.
According to Hockey Analysis, Eller played 777:12 total minutes with Brandon Prust, his second-most popular linemate in his six years in Montreal. To put into perspective just how little that that is over a six-year span, T.J. Oshie played 865:14 minutes with Alexander Ovechkin and 707:35 minutes with Nicklas Backstrom in his single year with the Capitals.
Washington offers Eller a sense of stability. He has already been told that the plan is to utilize him as the third center on the team, and his presence greatly boosts an already strong depth chart among the Capitals’ centers. Eller understands he’s not the key center on the team, but he also knows that his role is an important one.
“I have two all-star caliber centers [Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov] in front of me, so they are gonna see a lot of ice time, as they should,” Eller said. “I think my role is gonna be be a strong third line center and being able to play both ends of the ice but bring some offense to the third line.”
Eller acknowledges he’s in the early stages of developing chemistry with new teammates. On the eve of the season-opener, he’s had some preseason experience with his teammates, and he’s had time on the ice with Oshie, as the two played together briefly in St. Louis.
But Eller spent four years playing hockey in Sweden, where he picked up the native tongue. And that already gives Eller a in with the Caps’ Swedes, including Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson.
Eller spent time skating alongside Johansson in the early stages of training camp.
Johansson, who was primarily utilized as Washington’s third line left wing last year, could be teamed up with Eller pretty consistently in the upcoming season. Eller has also skated a good bit with Justin Williams, another potential linemate.
“They’re both highly skilled, really good players,” Eller said. “They can both pass and they can both finish, certainly. Jojo’s an extremely good skater and Justin Williams is, in my opinion, one of the smartest players in the league. It’s very good quality linemates to have.”
Justin Williams shared the same sentiment regarding Eller, and noted how Eller’s repertoire surprised him.
“I can tell that he’s a very strong skater, I didn’t quite know that about him,” Williams said. “But he’s a very, very strong skater, quicker than I thought he was. Strong and a very good puck protector and it seems he’s in the right position all the time.”
That’s exactly the type player Washington was seeking: Somone with speed and intelligence to bring an offensive touch to the Capitals third line, giving the forward grouping more of a top-nine classification. With 13 goals and 13 assists last year, Eller has the healthy résumé of offensive production critical for any team with serious championship aspirations.
“I think the best teams in the league, to compete for a Cup, you need good depth down the middle, you good need good depth down the lineup,” Eller said. “You need to have three, maybe four lines scoring.
“The last many years playoffs, a lot of big goals are scored by not only the first two lines but also guys down the lineup. I think things like that’s going to be important going down the line.”