Given that Washington has the reigning coach of the year, goalie of the year and goalscorer of the year, it’s tough to say the addition of a third-line center will make a huge difference.
But Lars Eller isn’t just another third-line center.
And the hole he’s filling isn’t just another hole.
“We identified Lars probably a year ago,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan said upon acquiring Eller from Montreal at the draft. “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, and he was on our list this year.”
Then — when asked if he’d finally solved Washington’s longstanding problem at 3C — MacLellan smiled, and gave a one-word reply.
The importance of depth down the middle cannot be understated. Last year’s Eastern Conference Finalists, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, had it in spades — the Penguins rolled Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, while the Bolts had Tyler Johnson, Steve Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, Brian Boyle and, when Stamkos was sidelined, cycled in a quality fifth option in Vladislav Namestnikov.
Washington, conversely, was top-heavy.
Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom did most of the lifting, which was fine during the regular season. But when the playoff clamp down began, and Kuznetsov faded, it was up to Jay Beagle and Mike Richards to give something more.
And no offense to either of those guys… but they are what they are.
The Eller acquisition essentially ended Richards’ time in Washington, and will (presumably) push Beagle back from 3C to 4C, where he’s better suited.
Eller, 27, will also increase Washington’s team speed. And this is another big deal in the East.
Following the loss to Pittsburgh in Round 2, MacLellan acknowledged the Pens’ speed “took over” at times. This was a familiar refrain.
Jon Cooper, the coach of a pretty speedy Bolts team — the only team to push Pittsburgh to seven games — said the Pens were just too fast. Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer, who’s team looked outmatched in the Stanley Cup Final, called Pittsburgh the fastest team in the league.
Eller should combat this. He has good speed, and captured the fastest skater title at a number of Montreal’s skills competitions.
Eller also has some nice offensive upside, scoring 13 goals in 79 games last year. Comparatively, Beagle and Richards combined to score 10.
But will it be enough?
As stated at the top, Eller’s not going to be a front-line guy for the Caps. And the speed he brings might only offset the loss of Jason Chimera, who was arguably the team’s fastest skater last season.
Whatever the case, one thing is clear. MacLellan knew he needed to fix his 3C problem, and he believes he’s found the perfect solution.