“The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion.”
-- Alexander Graham Bell
After a short stint as a rookie with the St. Louis Blues in 2009-2010 (seven games), Lars Eller was traded to Montreal where he was a consistent player with the faint aura of disappointment. In five full NHL seasons (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 schedule) he played between 77 and 79 games, scored goals totaling in the mid-teens four times, and was a high-20’s point producer. Enough to hold a job on a regular basis, but not quite what one might expect from a 13th-overall draft pick (2007). Consider that the players taken immediately before and after him, defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk, each had more career points in the NHL through the 2015-2016 season (170 for McDonagh and 242 for Shattenkirk) than Eller (154) despite playing in fewer career games.
Then, Eller was traded to the Washington Capitals in June 2016. He had another season with a mid-20’s point total, but upped his game to 38 points in 2017-2018 and 36 points last season, becoming an important element in the Caps’ success. He also missed only a single game in each of his three seasons in Washington, contributing durability to a position (third line center) that had been a source of frustration in production for the Caps for the better part of a decade.
Last season, Eller set personal career highs in assists (23), even strength assists (18), shorthanded goals (two, tying his 2014-2015 total), shots on goal (163), total minutes played (1,339), average ice time (16:32), and takeaways (59). However, that production faded in the postseason, his numbers dropping off considerably from his superb Stanley Cup season in 2018. He had only one goal in the seven-game opening round loss to Carolina (he had seven in 24 games in 2018) and only three points (18 in 2018). His shooting efficiency was off, posting a 9.1 shooting percentage (13.5 in 2018). And, his production was down despite averaging more ice time (19:00 versus 17:00 in 2018).
Odd Eller Fact…
Last season, 26 centers appeared in at least 50 games, averaged less than 17 minutes per game, and posted at least 35 points. Lars Eller was one of them. He had the worst shooting percentage of any member of the group (8.0 percent).
Bonus Odd Eller Fact…
The Caps were just 4-3-2 in games in which Eller recorded four or more shots on goal, 9-7-0 in games in which he did not record a shot. There was a happy medium in there somewhere.
Since the 2005-2006 season, center was a position of considerable churn for the Caps. Only five centers in those 14 seasons whose primary position was center appeared in more than 200 games. Once you get past Nicklas Backstrom, who has been a fixture since 2007-2008, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, a full time player since 2014-2015, it has been perhaps the team’s hardest position from which to get consistent production. Eller has provided that in his three years in Washington, and he is, in fact, third in points per game from the position among this group (0.41), which also includes Dasvid Steckel and Matt Hendricks, trailing only Backstrom (0.98) and Kuznetsov (0.81). It is also indicative of the churn at the position that Eller, despite having played only three seasons in Washington, is in the top-20 in games played for the club among full time centers.
Eller had a weird case of ineffectiveness against Metropolitan Division teams last year. He was 8-9-17 in 23 games against the Atlantic (0.74 points per game), 2-6-8 in 14 games against the Central (0.57). He struggled against the Pacific, with two points (both assists) in 16 games, but he was just 3-6-9 in 28 games against Metro opponents last year (0.32). He had just one point in his last six games against Metro opponents last season (a goal against Philadelphia on March 14th).
- 700 career NHL games (685, he needs 15)
- 300 career points (255, he needs 45)
- 100 points as a Capital (99, he needs one)
- 250 games as a Capital (243, he needs seven)
The Big Question… How will Lars Eller respond to a retooled third line?
Brett Connolly and his 52 goals over three years as a Capital -- 22 goals last season – are in Florida. Andre Burakovsky and his 36 goals over the last three years – 12 last season – are now in Colorado. Eller will likely be centering two new wingers – Carl Hagelin over a full season and perhaps Richard Panik, obtained this off-season. The third line has been a bellweather of sorts for how successful the Caps have been. When it is clicking and producing, the team is successful. When it is not, the team struggles. This is hardly deep analysis; production in depth is preferable and indicative of more team success than the absence of it. Eller has been the anchor, the most stable component of that line over the last three seasons. His ability to mesh with new linemates, quickly and effectively, could be an early indicator of how successful the Caps will be in a Metropolitan Division that is better in some places and more balanced overall.
In the end…
It was hardly a secret that for years the lack of depth down the middle was a thorn in the side of the Capitals’ ambitions. Lars Eller has gone a long way in providing that kind of depth with consistent regular season production. In a division as perennially difficult as the Metropolitan, and one that might be especially so this season, that kind of production is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
However, there is a darker side Eller’s production with the Caps. In 2018 he appeared in 24 games, scored seven goals, recorded 18 points, and had three game-winning goals, including an overtime winner in Game 3 of the opening round against Columbus that might have been the most important goal of the season for the Caps. In 2017 and 2019, though, he dressed for a total of 21 games, went 1-7-8, minus-3, and the Caps won one series.
Stars get the attention, but teams that succeed get contributions up and down the lineup. Lars Eller has been a solution for the third line center problem in his three seasons here, but it is in his postseason performance that one can see just how thin that line can be between success and disappointment. In 2014, Eller had five goals and 13 points as the Montreal Canadiens reached the Eastern conference final. And, of course, there was his seven-goal, 18-point performance in 24 games for the Caps in 2018 as they won the Stanley Cup. It is that time of year that will be of particular focus as the Caps try to return to the winner’s circle in 2020. And Eller, a seasoned playoff performer (since his first appearance in 2011, he has more playoff games played that Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Phil Kessel, and Steven Stamkos, for example), certainly seems to have acquired the experience to realize that success once more.
Projection: 81 games, 16-23-39, plus-1
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America