The Capitals’ defeat by the Penguins last season was due in part to Pittsburgh’s bottom six outplaying Washington’s. In the offseason GM Brian MacLellan vowed to make an upgrade the team’s third line his number-one priority. That upgrade was the acquisition of Lars Eller.
Through 32 games in a Caps’ uniform, Eller has posted just six points. Some people have been understandably underwhelmed by his lack of production. After all, the lowest point total Eller has posted in the previous five seasons is 26 points. Eller’s 15-point pace is not impressive.
But underneath his lagging production, Eller has brought stability and strong play to a Caps’ third line that needed it badly. And, while this strong play will need to drive more production at some point, there’s reason to believe the third line is in good hands with Eller at pivot.
The Caps have used four main third lines over the last two seasons. Here’s how each of those lines compares to any line Eller has skated on for more than 30 minutes this season. Small sample sizes are obviously an issue with only 30-ish minutes of hockey, but looking at a number of different lines Eller has skated on can paint a decent picture
Clearly, Eller has taken the Caps third line from a decent (on its best day) puck possession line to a line that owns the puck. Three of the four lines Eller has skated 30-plus minutes with this season are at 59.2 percent or better in shot attempt percentage. The only line below that is at a still great 55.9 percent, and this line had Zach Sanford on it, a player who may one day make a difference for the Caps, but who clearly isn’t ready for third line minutes in the NHL just yet.
The goals-for percentage also shows us that the Caps third line was in need of an upgrade. And, while Eller’s results are a bit more mixed, some of this is a sample size issue. One would think any of Eller’s combinations could comfortably be above 50 percent in goals if they were together long enough.
Eller improves the play of just about everyone he plays with, as you can see in the visual from Micah McCurdy below. The red boxes are players shot attempt differential without Eller and the black boxes are the same but with Eller.
The majority of the black boxes are closer to the “good” quadrant than the red boxes, meaning most of Eller’s teammates do better in terms of puck possession when skating with him than when skating without him.
Now, let’s compare that to last season’s primary third line center, Jay Beagle.
This is more of a mixed bag. Eller’s superiority to Beagle as a puck possession player is clear.
The production hasn’t been there for Eller yet, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t played well. And while some frustration at his lack of production is understandable, the third line has improved as a result of Eller being on it. If the Caps continue to give Eller the third line minutes he deserves, production from the line will probably improve during the rest of the season.
Stats from Corsica
Headline image: Patrick Smith
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