“Blessed is he that expects nothing, for he shall never be
-- Benjamin Franklin
It would be fair to say that Lars Eller had a season that did not meet expectations. You might call it, to an extent, a bad luck year. He was sidelined not once, but twice for COVID issues, once in November for six games and again in March for another three games. And yet, Eller’s year was not all disappointment. It was certainly a mixed bag of production and problems.
Fearless’ Take… Eller finished the season with 31 points, the fourth season in the last five in which he finished north of 30 points (he might have been 5-for-5 if he was not limited to 44 games and 23 points last season). He finished with the second-best shooting percentage of his six seasons with the Caps (11.2, trailing only the 11.6 percent he posted last season). He displayed a physical edge that was largely absent in his first five years with the Caps, averaging 4.91 credited hits per 60 minutes, most of his career in DC. He was on ice for 47 goals at even strength, second most as a Capital.
Cheerless’ Take… Wanna talk numbers, cuz? I got numbers. About those hits. The Caps were 11-10-4 in the 25 games in which he had two or more hits. They were 1-2-3 in the six games in which he skated at least 20 minutes. While he had 31 points, his 0.43 points per game were his second-worst as a Capital. His 40 penalty minutes were second-most with the Caps. He had his penalty killing ice time pared back – 1:39 per game, lowest of his six years in Washington, but the 18 power play goals for which he was on ice were the most of his career with the Caps. He was minus-3 in goal differential on-ice at even strength. He was minus-7 in takeaways to giveaways, second-worst of his tenure with the Capitals. He has eight even strength goals, fewest in his six years with the Caps.
Odd Eller Fact… 2021-2022 was the first season of the six Eller has been in Washington that he did not record an empty-net goal. Or an empty net point, for that matter.
Odd Eller Fact II… Eller has been to the postseason six times with the Caps. Only once in those six playoff appearances did he finish with a plus rating. He was plus-6 in 2018, the year the Caps won the Cup and in which he scored the Cup-clinching goal. In his other 35 playoff games over five seasons he is a combined minus-12.
Odd Eller Fact III… Eller is the only active Capital to average at least one minute per game on power plays (1:04) and at least two minutes per game on penalty kills (2:04).
Game to Remember… March 11th at Vancouver. When the Caps visited the Canucks on March 11th,
Eller was in a slump. No points and a
minus-8 rating over a ten-game stretch.
And he was averaging only 13:42 in ice time, which just seemed to concentrate
his dry spell. The Caps took a 2-0 lead
into the first intermission against the home team, but they gave it all back,
plus a goal for good measure when the Canucks potted three goals in just over
four minutes early in the third period.
Evgeny Kuznoetsov brought the Caps back to even at 3-3 with a power play
goal in the 16th minute of the period to force overtime. Eller skated one shift in the extra frame,
but that would be all the Caps needed. Eller
helped strip J.T. Miller of the puck in the offensive zone, freeing it up for
John Carlson to lead a two-on-one rush the other way, Eller to his left. After gaining the offensive zone, Carlson fed
Eller, who slipped a shot though the pads of goalie Thatcher Demko 42 second
into overtime to give the Caps a 4-3 win.
It was Eller’s only shot on goal of the game.
Game to Forget… March 9th at Edmonton. Two days before he broke out of that ten-game slump in Vancouver, Eller had a thoroughly forgettable game against the Oilers in Edmonton. The Caps scored first, but Edmonton came back to take a 2-1 lead. The Caps tied it, but the Oilers regained the lead mid-way through the third period. Washington tied the game on a goal by T.J.Oshie with two seconds left in regulation. The Caps could not secure the second standings point in overtime, though. In the fourth minute, the Caps got caught having to defend a 2-on-1 break with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl breaking free. Eller was the only Capital back, a forward having to defend against two of the top offensive players in the league. Eller could do little but serve as a witness as McDavid snapped a shot past his stick and past goalie Ilya Samsonov on the long side to give the Oilers a 4-3 win. Eller was on ice for all four Oiler goals and finished a minus-3 (worst on the club for the night), tying his worst rating of the season. At the offensive end, he had no points and only one shot attempt (a miss) in less than 14 minutes of work.
Postseason… Eller’s postseason tracked with his regular season. He did record a goal and a pair of assists in the six-game loss to Florida in the opening round, but he was also a minus-4 (second-worst among forwards), and he was on ice for seven even strength goals against, second-most among Caps forwards.
Looking Ahead… This off-season could be consequential for Eller. He had what was, on balance, a disappointing season, even with the absences due to COVID. And, he turned 33 years old on May 8th. With Connor McMichael waiting in the wings as perhaps the next third line center for the Caps on a team looking to get younger, there is a bulls-eye on Eller’s back as a potential departure. He has one more season with a $3.5 million cap hit, and with McMichael having two more seasons at $863,000 on his entry-level contract before he becomes a restricted free agent, there could be additional incentive for the Caps to field offers for Eller.
In the End
Whatever fate awaits Lars Eller, it seems unlikely he would ever have to buy a drink in Washington in the future for his 2018 postseason. But that said, hockey is a cold business, and a player who combines a disappointing season while approaching his mid-30’s, not to mention a potential replacement waiting on-deck, is a strong candidate to be playing in another city in 2022-2023. This does not diminish the respect due Eller for being the answer for most of his career in Washington to a problem that plagued the Caps for years – getting a productive player to center the third line. He added the bonus of being the sort of player who could center any of the lines in a pinch. He has been a valuable commodity, and if he does move in this off-season, his body of work in that role deserves fans’ respect.