BUFFALO — Just one pick into the Friday’s NHL draft, the Washington Capitals made their first move of the night, acquiring center Lars Eller from Montreal in exchange for Washington’s second-round picks in 2017 and 2018.
Eller has a cap hit of $3.5 million that runs through the 2017-18 season, and he’s an answer for a team that prioritized upgrading the bottom-six forward corps. The 27-year-old Eller scored 13 goals and 13 assists in 79 games played last season, and nearly all of his scoring was at even strength. Eller also played more than 105 minutes on Montreal’s penalty kill and won 50.6 percent of his faceoffs last season, but his time in Montreal was marred by inconsistent production.
“It’s hard to pinpoint why,” Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin said. “I know Lars, he’s a great kid, and I think sometimes he’s his worst enemy, too hard on himself. He’s going to a place in Washington, they have a really solid, deep team and maybe he won’t put as much pressure. But I think it’s a great for him and the Capitals, I really do.”
Bergevin and Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan were seen having several conversations on the draft floor prior to the start of the draft. After trading Eller to the Capitals, the Canadiens acquired Andrew Shaw from Chicago.
Washington had a vacancy at third-line center throughout the season, with the position being a revolving door between Jay Beagle, Marcus Johansson and Mike Richards. After the season, MacLellan said he wanted a more offensively reliable third line to boost secondary scoring that was lacking in the postseason. Have the Capitals finally filled their third-line center vacancy? “Yes,” MacLellan said.
“We identified Lars probably a year ago,” MacLellan said. “We’ve been asking about him. We’re trying to fill a third-line center with a good two-way guy that can give us a little offense and play defense. Little PK and probably a little power play, too. We identified him probably over a year ago. He was on our list this year. We kept trying and making calls to see if we could trade for him. And it happened today.”
MacLellan added that he’s confident the Capitals can re-sign their restricted free agents in Johansson, Dmitry Orlov, Tom Wilson and Michael Latta and fit under the $73 million salary cap. MacLellan said all four of those players will receive qualifying offers by Monday’s deadline. He said once they’re re-signed, it would be “close,” so Washington will be limited in free agency. Asked if the door is now closed for pending unrestricted free agent winger Jason Chimera to return, MacLellan said “not necessarily,” but it would depend on how much the restricted free agents are paid.
Johansson is a restricted free agent and due a pay raise from his $3.75 million salary that was awarded in arbitration last summer. If the Capitals and Johansson require an arbitration ruling again, it will also be for a one-year deal and make Johansson an unrestricted free agent at its conclusion. MacLellan said he’s “optimistic” both sides can find a salary and term they agree on to avoid arbitration for a second time. MacLellan and Johansson’s representation are expected to meet in the next few days. Eller’s acquisition slots Johansson back on the wing, his preferred position.
With Washington yet to re-sign any of its restricted free agents, and with Johansson’s last two contract extensions being lengthy processes, MacLellan has expressed some concern over how much Johansson could get awarded for a one-year deal in arbitration. The addition of Eller could create an additional salary cap crunch.
“He’s got some pretty decent stats and some of the comparables could have a higher number than we’re comfortable with,” MacLellan said on Tuesday.