TAMPA — The day Lars Eller was traded to the Washington Capitals, he was anointed the team’s third-line center, an obvious role considering who was ahead of him in the pecking order. Nicklas Backstrom was a franchise cornerstone, a nearly point-per-game producer with an underrated two-way game. Then there was Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals’ young and flashy offensive talent. Eller happily accepted his place behind them and quietly learned from them to become a Washington fixture in his own right.
“I think he kind of falls in the shadow a little bit of our other two centermen, who are world-class players,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “But Lars has been a very, very big part of our team’s success this year.”
He’s playing an even bigger part now, well out of the shadow with Backstrom out of the lineup because of an injured right hand. The Capitals have won both of their games — a series-clinching Game 6 against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins and Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning — without their top center because Eller has thrived with more responsibility. In Friday’s 4-2 win at Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena, Eller played the most minutes (20:35) of any Washington forward, scoring a power-play goal while in Backstrom’s place on the top unit.
It was Eller’s move to a stable, lessened role with the Capitals that primed him for the elevated one he’s now embracing.
“If you’re around the best players all the time and you have the right mind-set, that you want to learn, then you’re going to become a good player,” Eller said. “Just being here and watching Backstrom and Kuznetsov the last two years, I learned a ton. I learned a ton. It was not from talking and getting tips or that kind of stuff, but just the way the play, the calmness they have to their game and the decision-making. I always thought I had good abilities, but it’s about learning how to use those abilities to your best and just watching those guys has been a help for my game.”
As Eller has successfully centered Washington’s second line with Oshie and rookie Jakub Vrana for the past two games, he’s arguably bought Backstrom more time to heal. In the small sample size of two games, the trio has dominated with the Capitals taking more than 60 percent of the shot attempts when those three players have been on the ice together.
While still playing among the most shorthanded time of Washington’s forwards, Eller is now getting more man-advantage opportunity, working the goal-line position with the first power-play unit. He scored a goal with that group Friday night, punching in the rebound of an Oshie shot, and he has four total goals to go with four assists through the Capitals’ 13 playoff games. As long as the team continues to win with Eller pulling spot duty for Backstrom, there’s no reason to rush the latter back into the lineup.
“I don’t think the mind-set changes a lot,” Eller said. “I try to play the same game I have the whole year. When I go on the ice, I want to play in the opposition’s zone. I want to score goals. I want to create offense. So, my mind-set doesn’t really change a lot. I know I’m going to be playing a couple more minutes, and we all as a team have to step up a little more — me and some other guys who are going to get increased roles when a guy like Nicky is out.”
Eller had quietly been building to this throughout the season. In his second year with the Capitals, he found himself more comfortable with Coach Barry Trotz’s system and his place in it. He scored a career-high 18 goals and added 20 assists, earning a five-year contract extension in February. Though he was playing in a less prominent role than the one he had during his six-season tenure with Montreal, Eller enjoyed a consistency he was never afforded with the Canadiens, who moved him from line to line and center to wing and back. For Washington, Eller’s puck-possessing play brought a certain offensive depth down the middle that the team had previously lacked.
“I definitely found my identity as a player that I maybe, when I was in Montreal, had kind of lost at times,” Eller said. “I had just lost that identity of kind of what game I had to play to be successful for which kind of role. I was just bounced around a lot — and I mean a lot — whereas I had a lot more stability here.”
Said Trotz: “In his previous situation, I think he always felt that he was in that second hole and being on all the special teams. With us having Backstrom and Kuznetsov, I think he’s been able to settle into that third role — not a lot of pressure to always produce, but being really good as a two-way player. And he has been able to produce for us in that situation. . . . But I don’t think he’s had the pressure to be the headliner, if you will. It’s a different animal being the headliner because you’re expected to produce and judged on your production on all that as a player. I think it’s just eased him a little bit, and he’s been very effective. Now you see that he’s bumped up and still producing.”
When Washington returned to a happy locker room after Friday’s Game 1 win, Eller got a chance to scan his stat line. There was his name listed beside more than 20 minutes of ice time for a second straight game, the only two games Eller has played that much in a Capitals jersey. He had never questioned his role as Washington’s third-line center, but he wasn’t about to shy away from more either.
“It’s a good feeling,” Eller said. “It says a lot about how deep this team is, and I embrace that. That’s the position you want to be in as a player: You want to play as much as possible. I embrace that. That’s where I want to be.”
Read more on the Capitals: