“Finding a guy that plays all the situations at his level, I think it’s really hard,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I think he is very underrated, and he is another guy that comes to work every day and does a lot of good things for this team.”
In his past eight games, Eller has three goals and five assists. And with 35 points in 57 games, Eller is closing in on his season high of 38, set in 2017-18. Replacing the injured Evgeny Kuznetsov on the Capitals’ second line Thursday night in a 3-2 win at the Colorado Avalanche, Eller recorded two assists to put him three shy of his career high of 23, set last season.
“The fact that he’s had these types of numbers this year, despite maybe not having their impact as a line, says a lot about his impact and versatility and ability to get things done in different areas,” Coach Todd Reirden said.
Eller returned to D.C. earlier than most of his teammates after working with a number of skills coaches throughout the summer. Reirden said he thinks the dedication Eller put into his craft in the offseason stemmed from lingering disappointment with the team’s first-round playoff exit. Eller had played a big role in the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup run, with the iconic goals he scored and the weight they carried.
“I really feel like he was like, ‘If I get that situation again, I want to make sure I can improve here and I am not done getting better and I need to be better to help this team,' ” Reirden said.
Eller, who had seven goals and 11 assists over 24 postseason games in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, points out the memories are almost hard to forget, even if players try to focus on the present. There are constant reminders as they walk around the practice facility or at Capital One Arena, where photos of the Cup run are seemingly around every corner.
It’s a motivator, a reminder of what that group was capable of. And knowing he was a part of it, Eller believes the Capitals can do it again.
“You are reminded about it every day and it should because it brings up a feeling here inside that you should always carry that with you,” Eller said, pointing at his heart. “Nobody can take that away from me and from anybody that was a part of that. It’s a good thing to be reminded of that feeling and what we went through. You should carry that with you for the rest of your career and the rest of your life.”
With the Capitals entering their final 25 regular season games, Eller will continue to be their Swiss Army knife. He is filling in for Kuznetsov, who the team hopes will return from an upper-body injury at Arizona on Saturday or at Vegas on Monday.
According to the Capitals, over the past two seasons when Backstrom or Kuznetsov has been out of the lineup, Eller has two goals and 13 assists in 19 games.
“It’s not easy to be that guy,” Reirden said.
Eller could be a top-six center on most other teams in the NHL, yet when he agreed to a five-year extension that is worth $3.5 million annually in February 2018, he chose the third-line role on the Capitals. His situation mirrors Jordan Staal’s role with Pittsburgh in 2009. Behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Staal was the team’s third-line center and was a difference maker in the Penguins’ Cup run. He did everything Eller now does with the Capitals, playing in a variety of situations.
Staal is now flourishing with Carolina, but Eller is comfortable in Washington, which he said “just felt right” when he came over via trade with Montreal in 2016. He found his “home” and stability within the organization. As for whether he would prefer a larger role, Eller doesn’t hesitate.
“That’s a double-edged sword because as a player we should always want more,” Eller said. “But you always understand that to be on a team that is going to win, this is a good role for me, and [if] somebody gets injured, I know I will play more and get more minutes. To me, the most important thing is winning, and we currently have the capability of doing that here, so it just weighs more.”
Eller’s determination to win and improve has shown multiple times this season. Against Carolina on Jan. 13, a 2-0 win, Reirden pulled Eller aside and told him he wanted him to play against Staal’s line, which had given the Capitals trouble in earlier meetings. When Reirden said he also would tell linemates Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, Eller interjected: “No, no, I got it. I want to talk to my linemates about it. It’s something we’re working toward.”
Hagelin and Panik are less offensively inclined than Eller’s previous linemates, Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, who left the team in the offseason. But as the line has continued to mesh, they have seen a rise in productivity. There have been other points in the season, such as before the holiday break, when Eller has felt the need to be vocal with his linemates — and that’s important to him when he thinks it’s appropriate.
“I don’t try to tell players what to do because I think their creativity and freedom is important — the free-flow instinct,” Eller said at the time. “But I think I was not as happy with where we were at as a line. I know we could be better, so I tried to talk a little more to my wingers about what we are looking to accomplish.”
The third line remains a work in progress, but as Eller’s game continues to grow, he’s the key to making it consistent as the postseason gets closer.
Read more on the Capitals: