Eller’s recent play shows growing comfort with Capitals.
Eller’s recent play shows growing comfort with Capitals
When the Washington Capitals sent a 2017 and a 2018 second-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for center Lars Eller at the 2016 NHL draft, the belief was the Capitals finally acquired a bona fide third-line center, a role that had eluded them for the better part of the last several seasons.
Eller initially struggled, recording just two goals and a single assist in his first 26 games with Washington. Capitals coach Barry Trotz even bumped Eller down to the fourth line, opting to utilize Jay Beagle more as the team’s third line center.
In the last four or five games, the Capitals have seen a different side of Eller. The point production still isn’t exactly there, as he’s added just one assist in his last five games. However, Eller is adding a second gear to his game — one that already includes defensively-responsible play — by creating scoring chances and applying pressure in the offensive zone.
“What you see with Lars, he’s using that big body, he’s being very forceful in situations with the puck,” Trotz said. “And he’s getting some good opportunities. If he keeps trending that way with that mind set, he could be a real
difference maker, especially in that third line where you can get some real good match-ups.”
Eller is beginning to regain a sense of comfort within his role with the team, something he didn’t initially have in his first few games. It was the second time in his NHL career Eller has had to pack his belongings and navigate his way through a new locker room. Eller was traded following his brief rookie season with the St. Louis Blues to the Canadiens. As a player familiar with joining a new team, Eller has had different experiences when it comes to picking up a new system.
This most recent move was a little more troublesome than those in his past.
“Sometimes [joining a new team] is [difficult], sometimes it’s not,” Eller said. “I think, in this case, it maybe took me a little while. But I think I’ve really found my game here the last two weeks or so.”
Over the last five games at evenstrength, five-on-five hockey, Eller has created eight scoring chances, 14.55 percent more than his average teammate, according to Corsica. He and his linemates have also taken 60 total shot attempts, 21 more than he and his linemates have allowed, suggesting Eller and his linemates greatly possess the puck more than their opponents.
“I’ve been getting more comfortable,” Eller said. “I’m finally starting to create a lot of scoring chances like I should be. And it comes from just taking my game to a new level, but it all started with moving my feet and competing. The rest follows.”
Also helping Eller is familiarity with his linemates. Throughout the season, Trotz has shuffled the wings alongside of Eller to try to put an offensive jolt into the line. Eller says he understands that line shuffling needs to be done in order to see what exactly works and what doesn’t, but he finally appears to have a player locked in as his linemate in the rookie winger Jakub Vrana. Vrana, recalled from the Hershey Bears on Nov. 30, has been a mainstay on Eller’s line over the last five games. The two are starting to develop a sense of familiarity, especially when it comes to on-ice communication.
“Great two-way centerman, obviously great in d-zone,” Vrana said of Eller. “We talk a lot when there’s a mistake or anything happen on the ice, we always go through and talk about it. And obviously it’s great that he can be two-way. He plays really good offensively. He brings a lot of speed to the team.”
Eller has also played a role in Vrana’s early success. Eller says that, as long as he’s playing at his best, he can comfortably play with any player, and he believes he’s playing very well centering Vrana.
As a rookie just nine games in to his NHL career, Vrana has looked toward Eller for guidance on and off the ice. He also says that the two need to do some tweaking to improve even more, but they play similarly, and that helps.
“Whenever I need to ask something or anything I need, I can feel comfortable to go and ask him. He makes it way easier for me to go ask for whatever I need,” Vrana said. “We’ve been creating pretty good chances the last few games. Obviously there’s little details we need to work on, like shot and finish and stuff, but I think we’ve showed some good chemistry so far.”
Eller recognizes that if he continues playing the way he’s playing, the points will naturally come. But Eller represents a key cog that was missing in the Capitals attempt at a championship run just last season. The Capitals opted to utilize Beagle as a third-line center, a player far more equipped for a more defensive fourth-line role. They also tried to insert Mike Richards into the equation. But at the tail-end of his career, it was far too much to ask from the 31-year-old Richards.
If Eller is starting to warm up to his team and get his offensive juices flowing, he gives the Capitals three legitimate offensive lines capable of scoring a goal on any given shift. In a fierce Metropolitan Division that features five of the NHL’s top seven teams, three offensive lines has become a necessity in success.
Eller has a sense of confidence in his game, and it’s beginning to translate to his on-ice play. That can only help Washington.
“I like the direction I’m heading in,” Eller said.
Washington Capitals center Lars Eller has recently created more scoring chances and applying pressure in the offensive zone after initially struggling with just two goals and a single assists in the first 26 games.