“A tiger does not shout its tigritude, it acts.”
-- Wole Soyinka
It was shrouded in mystery. What we know of Lars Eller being nicknamed “Tiger” is a bit sketchy. But he lived up to his nickname in 2017-2018, and he personified the observation by the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, that a tiger does not shout, it acts. Eller posted career highs in goals (18) and points (38) last season, obliterating his previous bests (16 goals with Montreal in 2011-2012 and 30 points with the Canadiens in 2012-2013). He also had career highs in even-strength goals (15), power play goals (3), shots on goal (161), and blocked shots (69) in a career-best tying 81 games played. He finished the season on a goal scoring rush, posting 13 goals in his last 41 games.
His strong regular season performance, especially his late-season performance, carried over into the playoffs where he scored what might be two of the most consequential goals in Capitals history. His game-winning goal in double overtime in Game 3 of the first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets let the Caps avoid going in a 0-3 hole, made especially gut-wrenching in that all three losses would have been in overtime. One could have envisioned a quick and quiet exit thereafter, not an uncommon theme before the 2018 postseason for this franchise, and a purging of the roster. Then there was the last goal of the season, the game-winner in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights with 7:37 left in regulation to complete a third period comeback and clinch the franchise’s first Stanley Cup win.
Odd Eller Fact…
Lars Eller is the only center for the Caps since the 2005-2006 season to record more than 15 goals in a season while averaging less than 16 minutes of ice time per game. He had 18 goals last season while averaging 15:18 per game in ice time.
Bonus Odd Eller Fact…
Lars Eller had more game-winning goals in the postseason (three) than he did in the regular season (two).
Double Bonus Odd Eller Fact…
Lars Eller had more three-point games in the postseason (three) than he did in the regular season (one). Get the feeling this guy was clutch down the stretch?
What Eller provided was another layer at depth where successful teams need it – down the middle. Here is what that meant to the Caps. Eller’s 18 goals gave the Caps three centers with at least 15 goals (Nicklas Backstrom had 21, and Evgeny Kuznetsov had 27), the only time they did it with three full-time centers since the 2004-2005 dark season. In fact, it was the first time since the 1992-1993 season (Mike Ridley (26), Dale Hunter (20), and Michal Pivonka (21)). He is one of 28 centers in team history to record 30 goals and 30 assists for the Caps, but he is only one of three to do it having played only two seasons with the Caps (Robert Lang and Rolf Hedberg are the others). If he should go 20-17-37 this coming season (not impossible), he’d become just the 19th center in team history to be a career 50-goal/50-assist player with the franchise.
It is hard to figure out just what Eller’s last half of the regular season and postseason mean going forward. Maybe things finally clicked for him, and he has settled into a situation that fits his skills and style. He is a solid third line center who can even fill in as a second line center for stretches, as he did when Nicklas Backstrom injured his hand in the postseason, and he went 2-3-5, plus-2, in the four games (three of them wins) Backstrom missed. But there is also the thought that his career performance to date did not suggest a coming out party in 2017-2018. Until this season he was a dependable low teens goal scorer and high-20’s point getter. Not quite what one might have expected from a 13th-overall draft pick (2007). And he started pretty quickly last season (3-8-11, even, in his first 16 games) before going into a prolonged dry spell (1-3-4, plus-1, over his next 21 games). But even with that push at the end, looking at his ten-game splits he was a minus-13 over his last three segments. It wasn’t all unicorns and accordions to end the regular season.
- 250 career points (he needs 31)
- 100 even strength goals (he needs 13)
- 200 career even strength points (he needs 12)
- 100 points as a Capital (he needs 37)
- 10,000 minutes played (he needs 1,181)
The Big Question… Is the 2017-2018 production a new normal for Lars Eller?
If you are a Caps fan, two things are striking about Lars Eller’s 2017-2018 season. First, his jump in scoring from 2016-2017 (12-13-25) to the 2017-2018 season (18-20-38) was reminiscent of his jump in scoring from his rookie season (7-10-17) to his sophomore season (16-12-28). Second, he remained between 25 and 30 points over the following five seasons, including his first season in Washington. Now, he took another big leap in production, and the question as the 2018-2019 season gets underway is whether this is another “quantum” leap in production that can be sustained. Arguing in his favor is that he remains in his productive prime years (he will not turn 29 until next May), and he is likely to be centering familiar faces this season, what with so few changes on the roster overall. On the other hand, were last year’s numbers juiced by a hot streak over the second half of the season? But then again, that might signal a new normal. This gets confusing.
In the end…
Lars Eller is an example of what happens when a team does not get sufficient secondary support on offense, and then when it does. In the 2017 postseason he was generally quiet, posting no goals and five assists in 13 games, while going minus-2 (the only time he finished a postseason on the minus side of the ledger) in a second-round flame-out. This past season he was one of the critical ingredients to the Caps’ playoff success (7-11-18, plus-6, in 24 games). And, his ability to fill in for an injured Nicklas Backstrom only added to his value as a player who can to “be that guy.” If he can post similar numbers, the Caps have a better chance of achieving similar success. It depends on whether 2017-2018 was an outlier in his career arc, or it was a new normal. The “tiger” announced his tigritude with action last season. This season is about sustaining that level of feline ferocity.
Projection: 78 games, 17-22-39, minus-1
Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images North America