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The 25 Most Important Players for the Caps: No.12 Lars Eller

The 25 Most Important Players for the Caps: No.12 Lars Eller

Every player on an NHL team plays a role.Some, of course, play bigger roles than others.

In the coming weeks, Tarik El-Bashir and JJ Regan will rank the 25 most important players in the Caps’ organization, from least to most important, weighing factors such as past production, future potential and intangibles.

Today’s player: No. 12 Lars Eller

The Caps headed into the summer of 2016 after yet another second round playoff loss left wondering what happened? That was year one of Brian MacLellan’s self-proclaimed championship window. Despite coming up short of the ultimate prize, Washington had won the Presidents’ Trophy and there were seemingly few holes for this team to fix. There was one hole, however, that was quickly identified and it became the biggest goal for the entire offseason: Find a third-line center.

Pittsburgh’s 2016 Cup run showed just how important team depth was. Of course, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the key players who make that team go, but one of the major differences in the 2016 series between the Caps and Penguins was Pittsburgh’s third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. Their effectiveness signaled to the Caps that the team was too top heavy.

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MacLellan addressed the third-line center need by trading two draft picks to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Lars Eller, a talented forward who Montreal handled with all the same care and forethought as an old, broken Swiss-Army knife.

Head coach Michel Therrien moved Eller all throughout the lineup at both wing and center. Which left him without any defined role. Consistency was something he did not get in Montreal, but that was exactly what the Capitals offered him on the third line.

Eller’s adjustment took some time and in his first month with Washington, he had more penalties (5) than points (1). But things started to click at the turn of the calendar when head coach Barry Trotz settled on a third line of Brett Connolly-Eller-Andre Burakovsky. After a slow start, Eller scored 16 of his 25 points of the season in January and February.

With the first year in Washington now under his belt, the hope is that Eller will not suffer the same growing pains and will be able to produce at the rate he showed in the latter half of the season. While Burakovsky will almost certainly move into the top-six, it seems likely that Connolly will remain on the third line with the Danish center. That familiarity may provide the third line with a spark early that they did not have last season.

Like many players adjusting to a new team and a new coaching scheme, it took time for Eller to acclimate to the Capitals. Once it clicked, it was evident just how talented he was. He has never surpassed 30 points in his career, but his talent tells me his ceiling is higher. There’s no reason to think he can’t top 30 points in his second season in Washington.

Center depth is one of the Caps’ biggest strengths heading into the 2017-18 season and Eller anchoring the third line is a major reason why.

Check out the full list of the Caps most important players as it comes out here and check out previous player profiles below.

— No. 25 Aaron Ness
— No. 24 Chandler Stephenson
— No. 23 Riley Barber
 No. 22 Pheonix Copley
— No. 21 Devante Smith-Pelly
— No. 20 Taylor Chorney
— No. 19 Nathan Walker

 No. 18 Philipp Grubauer
 No. 17 Christian Djoos

— No. 16 Madison Bowey
— No. 15 Jay Beagle
— No. 14 Brett Connolly
— No. 13 Tom Wilson

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What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

usatsi_10438034.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

The bye week is a good opportunity to evaluate what happened over the course of the first half of the season and start to look forward. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan answer the biggest questions surrounding the team at the bye.

Today's topic: What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

El-Bashir: Through the Caps' first 45 games, there have been some great goals, scintillating saves and thrilling overtime sessions. But the biggest moment, to me, wasn’t really moment at all. It was the day or so after the Caps cratered in Colorado, 6-2, on Nov. 16, because they came back a totally different team vs. Minnesota on Nov. 18.

Following that blowout loss to the Avalanche, Coach Barry Trotz had a “man-to-man talk with the group” and challenged each individual to look himself in the mirror. When a coach does that, there are typically two ways a season will go—to the top or down the drain. Trotz wasn’t sure which response he’d get, but he didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “The way they came out [against the Wild] told me everything I needed to know,” Trotz said to me and Rob Carlin on the Caps Extra Podcast (11/29).

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The really good stuff begins around 13:00, and it’s definitely worth a listen if you haven’t heard it:

    

Including that 3-1 win over the Wild, the Caps are 18-5-2 in their last 25 games and have shot straight to the top of the Metropolitan Division standings. Their 38 points are tied with the Golden Knights and Bruins for most in that time frame. 

Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin has accrued 15 goals and 15 assists in those 25 games. Only four players—John Tavares, Nathan MacKinnon, Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby—have more points during that time period.

Indeed, every season has a turning point. For the Caps, it happened, collectively, after bottoming out in the thin air of the Mile High city.

Regan: There have been several moments that have stood out from the first 45 games of the season, such as Nathan Walker becoming the first Australian to play in the NHL and scoring in his first game on a night in which Alex Ovechkin also scored four times. Jay Beagle’s buzzer-beater against the Carolina Hurricanes will also stand as one of the best moments of the season when it is all said and done.

But I will go a bit more sentimental with my pick and choose Ovechkin’s hat-trick performance in Toronto for Alex Luey.

That night could not have been any more special. Ovechkin invited Luey, a 13-year-old cancer survivor, to attend the game with his family after he heard his story. Luey and Ovechkin were virtually inseparable for the night as Luey was on the bench for warmups and then was with Ovechkin for all of his postgame interviews.

That alone would have been a touching story, but it got so much better.

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Ovechkin promised Luey he would score for him before the game. He more than delivered with a hat-trick performance in a 4-2 win over Toronto in what was a magical night for both him and the Luey family.

You couldn’t write a story so perfect and if you did everyone would think it too unbelievable. Yet it happened and it was by far the best moment of the season.

We may be only 45 games in, but this one will be hard to top.

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What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

usatsi_10482872.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

The bye week is a good opportunity to evaluate what happened over the course of the first half of the season and look forward to the rest of the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan answer the biggest questions surrounding the team at the bye.

Today's topic: What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

El-Bashir: While seeing the Caps sit atop the deep and difficult Metro Division is a bit unexpected, my biggest surprise at the bye is Alex Ovechkin’s return to world-class form. For the record, I wasn’t among those—and there were plenty—who were ready to write off No. 8, saying he was poised for a precipitous plunge in production following a disappointing 33 goal performance a year ago. I thought he’d bounce back…a bit, anyway. After all, we had seen him do it a couple of times before. Instead, what we appear to witnessing is a rebirth of sorts. Ovechkin, at 32, leads the NHL with 28 goals and is on pace to hit 50 for the eighth time in his career. (Last season, the top-10 goal getters were all under 30 and Sidney Crosby’s 44 led everyone.) Ovechkin is also on pace for his highest point total—89—since he posted 109 way back in 2009-10. The three-time MVP is also leading the league in shots.

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Sure, Ovechkin is playing 1:20 more per game than he did last year. But it’s not all about an extra couple of shifts. Ovechkin put in the work this offseason, and it’s showing. He’s got a gear, a burst we haven’t seen in a couple of years and, as a result, he’s getting to pucks—and creating opportunities—he couldn’t a season ago.

For Ovechkin’s legion of fans, the second half of the regular season figures to be even more fun that the first because of the milestones that are within his reach. At some point, assuming he stays healthy, Ovechkin will hit 500 assists (he’s two away), 600 goals (he’s 14 back) and 1,000 games (he needs 34 more).

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again Caps fans: savor every moment because Ovi’s on top of his game again.

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Regan: My biggest surprise is the Caps’ 28-14-3 record. Given the number of players the team lost in the offseason, it was clear they were not the same team that won the Presidents’ Trophy the past two years. But how much of a step back would they take? No one was really sure what to expect. With a six-point lead over the Metropolitan Division 45 games into the season, Washington is surpassing even the most optimistic of expectations.

Not only are the Caps exceeding expectations, they are doing it in the face of obstacles that should be holding them back.

The Caps have not had the same remarkable luck with injuries as they have the past few years. T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen have all missed time due to injuries this season. Those are significant losses, especially Niskanen given the team’s thin depth on the blue line. But Alex Ovechkin’s defiance of Father Time, the emergence of Jakub Vrana and key contributions from role players like Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly have bolstered the team’s offense. Defensively, John Carlson’s career season helped mitigate the loss of Niskanen.

When you consider the players the Caps lost, the injuries the team has dealt with, that they rank dead last in shots per game, that they have two rookies playing on the blue line and their best player is 32 years old, the fact the team not only sits in first place of the tough Metropolitan Division but by a sizable six-point margin is absolutely remarkable.

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