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.
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