“I don't feel we need that much production,” MacLellan said. “We need more two-way game.”
Last year, the Capitals’ third line leaned toward offense, with Eller centering Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky. Connolly scored 22 goals, while Burakovsky finished with 12 goals and 13 assists. Eller had 13 goals and 23 assists. Now with Colorado, Burakovsky has 12 goals in 28 games, while Connolly had scored 14 goals in 30 games with Florida entering Thursday.
Eller has six goals and 10 assists in 33 games this season, filling in on various lines because of injuries and suspensions.
Hagelin has played in just 22 games after he missed 11 because of an upper body injury. He has no goals and six assists. Panik missed 10 games because of an upper body injury. He has two goals and no assists. Panik said he finally understands Washington’s system but hasn’t been able to convert a flurry of offensive chances. He also has gotten unlucky, hitting a couple of posts. The Capitals have hit a combined 38 posts or crossbars, which is the most in the NHL.
“I think it is consistency,” Hagelin said of the line’s needed progression. “It doesn’t matter who you play with. You want to get more than four games probably to find out each other’s tendencies, and once you find that, you start to get confidence, and all of a sudden things start happening offensively.”
Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said the team is looking at the thriving fourth line as a bit of a blueprint.
“They need to affect the opposition with their speed,” Reirden said. “They need to create turnovers with their stick detail and force players to make plays sooner than they want and have the skill level to convert when they get chances and opportunities because they are going to get some.”
Eller said he tries to play the same way with Hagelin and Panik as he did with Burakovsky and Connolly.
“I think I have to,” Eller said. “I think before, both Andre and Brett were pure scorers and had their strength with finishing off plays, and I think I have to think as much as a shooter as much as I have to think passing and even more so shooting, but you still have to use your linemates just as much.”
Eller said there are many ways for the third line to contribute other than producing offensively. The Danish center said he is eager to face opponents’ first or second lines, and Reirden appears to be growing more comfortable with the idea.
“If you do that, you take a little more pride on just not getting scored on,” Eller said.
“They need to also be able to play the other team’s top lines, and that will alleviate the pressure from our top two lines in terms of defensive responsibilities,” Reirden said. “It opens them up a little bit more for more favorable matchups for us. That is going to take a little bit, and it will be exciting, but that is how I envisioned it, how I hoped to have it play out with the third line, where not only can they play against the other team’s best players, but also they can create offense.”
Because of the star power among the Capitals’ top six forwards, third-line production isn’t essential to the team’s success, but Eller has an eye toward the future.
“The secondary scoring, especially in the playoffs, it is just so crucial, so crucial to the team’s success,” Eller said. “You still have to go out there with the mind-set that every player has to make a difference, wanting to score, so from that perspective it doesn’t change. The dynamic we have now compared to the past is a little different.”