Lars Eller, to put it lightly, has had a unique year.
The Capitals’ third-line center has skated at least 10 minutes of five-on-five play with 15 different forwards this season, as the seemingly endless string of injuries and COVID-absences has made for a middle-six group of forwards that hasn’t been stable all season long.
For context, the team’s top line in Thursday’s win over the Hurricanes consisting of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson has skated more than 380 minutes at five-on-five this season, per Natural Stat Trick. Eller’s line with Connor McMichael and Daniel Sprong has skated just over 200 minutes together.
“Just try to worry about your own game, do what you can do, try to make the people around you better and take it day by day,” Eller said of the challenges involved with having new linemates seemingly every night. “I try to talk to my wingers a little bit, make them feel comfortable. Not telling them how to play the game, certain situation yes, try to do this, but other than that, just try to make them feel good so they can be themselves. It hasn’t been an ideal year, that’s for sure.”
The Capitals are hopeful, though, that the constant changing of lines will begin to resolve itself.
Anthony Mantha returned to the lineup Thursday and gave the team its full allotment of top-six wingers for the first time all season. That, in turn, will allow the third line to find an identity over the coming weeks until the trade deadline and season’s conclusion on April 29.
“I don't know that we have a good enough identity in that middle-six,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Wednesday. “Getting Oshie back, getting Nick back, getting Mantha back should give us a clear picture of where we're at. I think we need to get Nick and Osh up to game speed. I mean they're working their way into — they're behind because of the time they missed. They're working their way into the season in the middle of the season."
Once the top six gets settled, which it appears to be at the moment, the focus will be on improving the team’s third line to give the team four lines it can comfortably send on the ice at any time.
The fourth line, which has since been hampered by the loss of Carl Hagelin to an eye injury, has been stellar all season. As has the top line, and Thursday, so was the second line.
“That (third) line specifically, the identity has been missing there,” MacLellan said. “What is the purpose of that line? So, we have to figure out, after the deadline, we have to figure out how we're constructing that line. What's Lars' job, who is he playing with, is it a two-way line, is it offensive, is it defensive? I think that's part of the issue that we're having right now.”
When asked specifically about Sprong’s role on the team, MacLellan was hopeful. Through the season, Sprong has shown flashes of his offensive prowess, but has been a healthy scratch from the lineup on numerous occasions.
“I think in pockets he’s played really well,” MacLellan said. “Obviously the goal-scoring, his natural talent, he’s got one of the best releases or shots in the league, he can score goals from pretty much anywhere. I think the coaches would like to see details in his game, they would be more concerned with the details in his game than the goal-scoring. At times, he provides that. And at times, he doesn’t.”
With limited cap space headed toward the deadline, MacLellan said the Capitals will be less aggressive than usual — since they didn't mind overpaying for a depth piece. But he added he'd still like to improve the team at the deadline.
And if the hope is to bolster the third line, that could be one of the spots they target.