Lars Eller is exactly what the Capitals need

Mar 29, 2016; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller (81) plays the puck during the second period against the Detroit Red Wings at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 29, 2016; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller (81) plays the puck during the second period against the Detroit Red Wings at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports /

After another second round exit, Washington’s hockey club chose to make only minor changes to their roster, the most impactful of which is the addition of Lars Eller. Pundits will argue that this move is insufficient to push the team over the edge; but is the Danish center exactly what the Capitals need?

At the 2016 Draft, the Capitals traded a pair of second round picks to the Montreal Canadiens for Lars Eller. Third liner, 15 goals, maybe 50 points, whatever. 90% of fans will stop at that thought. Then there are people like us who will analyze every aspect of his play; because it’s we need some puck talk to calm our hockey-withdrawal-syndrome and the World Cup isn’t quite enough.

When taking into account the blockbuster trade the Habs made a few days later, it turned out to be a high price to pay for the Dane. If the Predators can get PK Subban for Shea Weber and his contract, BMac should have been able to acquire Eller for a bag Doritos with a ten year contract and a no-eating-clause. Many pundits are critical of the trade for the lack of a “wow-factor”. After all, another second round heartbreak leaves fans wanting blood. Although, under the new playoff format that put the Presidents’ Trophy winners against the 2nd best team in the conference, it’s hardly a ‘normal’ second round-loss.

On this team, Lars Eller slots in to the 3rd line center slot which was occupied by Jay Beagle for most of last season. The Caps knew that Beagle wasn’t ideal in that slot, and tried to replace him with Mike Richards before the season was half-old. He was didn’t live up to the unreasonably high expectations. With Mike Richards slowly skating out the picture, one would assume Jay Beagle moves down to the 4th line. This isn’t a “wow” move to shake up the top-6; such a move isn’t needed or warranted. However, the move makes a team that won the President’s Trophy better.

With Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Backstrom, Williams, Burakovsky and/or Johansson, the Capitals top-6 is world-class. It would be hard (though not impossible) to make a case for shaking it up. The second line was snake-bitten in the playoffs, but that’s more a factor of luck, not ability. IT’s important to remember the factor of luck that comes into play with short sample-sizes. Kuznetsov, who was the most snake-bitten, was arguably the Caps best forward during the 2015 playoffs. Over a small sample-size that is 12 low scoring playoff games, puck-luck will not always even-out. That’s hockey. The top-6 lineup is among the elite in this league, and did not merit a shake-up.

There always seems to be a fad to follow the model of teams that just won the Stanley Cup. There was the constant whisper of the phrase “Boston Model” following the 2011 season, the obsession with possession statistics after the Kings banners, and the importance of top-to-bottom balance that’s emphasized during the seemingly biennial parades in Chicago. What’s the word on the street since the Penguins victory? Speed. If I had a dime for every time I read about the importance of ‘speed’ this off-season, I could afford Ted’s season ticket price increases.

Size. Skill. Possession. Balance. Speed. Every year there’s a new model to follow. The truth is, there’s likely more than one way to win the Cup. And being good at all of the above would give you the best chance to win. The Caps have size up and down the lineup. The skill is elite in top-6, but falls off below that. The same can be said about their ability to possess the puck; and while the Caps are not a slow team, they certainly aren’t as fast as their rivals to the northwest. Eller helps in those areas.

For Le Tricolor, Eller rotated between his spot at third line center and on the second line as a winger. He’s an elite third liner who defends well and can play top-6 minutes. Add Johansson or Burakovsky to the list and you have two players with top-6 skill playing on your third line. Beagle replaces an ineffective Mike Richards on the 4th line; the skill of the bottom-6 has improved dramatically with the addition of one player.

The possession numbers tell the same story. In similar roles, Eller possessed the puck much better than Beagle last season. During the circus that was the 2015-16 Habs campaign, he was 3rd among Canadiens forwards with a 5v5 SACF of 52.83%. Beagle ranked 7th on the Caps with 50.45% for the year. Eller’s playing pace with the puck has been praised, and will be an upgrade over an aging Mike Richards.

Eller gives the coaching staff options that they didn’t have at their disposal last season; and after trying to fill the hole on the bottom-6 last season, Mac made it his priority to fill it. He did so, just minutes after the market opened in Buffalo. With Burakovsson and the possibility of Jakub Vrana playing in the Caps bottom-6, Trotz has the ability to rotate in a third line that can skate, play fast, and keep the puck.

Next: Barry Trotz wants Capitals to start faster, should we be concerned?

Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Eller and Beagle give the Caps one of the best top-to-bottom center cores in the league. It makes the lineup more balanced, faster and should improve their ability to out-possess the opposition. What was the best team in Capitals history just got that much better. Does that mean we should start clearing our schedules for June 2017? Of course not; but it was the right move for a team that came close last season, and just might help push them to the top.