In wrestling parlance, turning heel means abandoning your heroic babyface role and embracing a villainous heel character. And while Lars Eller still seems to be the same kind, thoughtful guy he always has been, his signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins represents a turn to the dark side for Capitals fans.
Eller, who spent the last seven seasons in Washington and scored the team’s Stanley Cup-winning goal in 2018, will now play for The Other Team in the NHL’s biggest rivalry since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby debuted during the 2005-06 season. On July 1, the first day of NHL free agency, Eller signed a two-year deal with new Penguins’ president of hockey operations, Kyle Dubas, worth $2.45 million per season.
Tuesday, Eller’s “turn” continued as he met with Penguins media for the first time. Eller explained his reasoning for choosing Pittsburgh and even referred to the Pens as “we.” *Gasp*
“Pittsburgh, I see them being competitive for the next two years with how their team is structured and their contracts and their age and everything,” Eller said. “I think we’ll be competitive for the next two years so that made it a place that was appealing to be for two years.”
According to Eller, there were a handful of teams with varying degrees of interest in signing him. He found Pittsburgh, who missed the playoffs last year for the first time in 17 seasons, a natural fit for both him and his family.
“It checked a lot of boxes of what I was looking for,” Eller said. “Most of all, I think it has been and still is a competitive team. I see them as a playoff team. I think the players that have been Pittsburgh’s best players for over a decade are still the best players and capable of getting it done. The competitiveness on the team and my role within the team was very appealing. I felt pretty quickly that I could see myself playing in Pittsburgh, especially as the way things developed on the day on July 1st. I just had a good feeling about it.”
During his time in Washington as a two-way, third-line center, Eller scored 10-or-more goals in every season except for the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign. Injury and age, however, seemed to catch up to the 34-year-old Dane in 2022-23, as he posted his worst full season since his rookie year in 2010-11. In 84 games, Eller scored 10 goals and collected 23 points. At the trade deadline, the Capitals dealt Eller to the Colorado Avalanche for a second-round pick in 2025. Eller did not register a point in seven postseason games with the Avs.
Heading into next season, Eller has already been tabbed to re-assume his role at third-line center, sitting on the depth chart behind future Hall of Famers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, at the pivot position.
“Playing behind those guys for me and guys like me, it’ll be our job to support them with secondary scoring and being very hard to play against,” Eller said.
Dubas, who was hired by the Penguins after being dismissed by the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the offseason, was really happy about landing the former Capital.
“Eller, he’ll take that (third-line center) spot here,” Kyle Dubas said. “He’s got a great relationship with Todd Reirden on our staff who coached him in Washington and won a championship together there. He’s somebody that we keyed in on early in free agency.
“(Head coach) Mike Sullivan, myself, and (assistant coach) Todd (Reirden) spoke with him on the phone right after noon,” he continued. “We were able to share with him what our plan and where we were going to go with him and what we would expect from him. We’re happy that was a great fit for us because that’s a really hard position to fill. Someone that can come in and play that role but also wants to play that role especially on a team like ours and the way it’s constructed.”
Working with Reirden again was especially appealing for Eller, who he talked to privately several times during the process.
“Me and Todd always had a good relationship in either role he was in,” Eller said. “Had good communication with him. I liked what he stands for and what he wants to emphasize and what he wants to see out of his players and what he wants his players to play like.”
The Penguins’ signing of Eller represented one of several moves the they made to revamp their bottom six. They also inked 31-year-old Noel Acciari to a three-year contract worth $2 million per season and 30-year-old Matt Nieto to a two-year deal that has an AAV of $900k.
“[Acciari] is going to be extremely physical every night,” Dubas said. “He’s able to kill penalties. He’ll be able to chip in and score as well. In terms of the toughness he brings, I think it’s undisputed in the way that he plays. He’ll put any part of his body on the line to block shots, (and that) will be very welcome here at even strength and on the penalty kill.
“Nieto is a player that in my previous position (in Toronto), we always looked at and tried to acquire but we couldn’t get it across the (finish) line,” Dubas added. “He brings great speed, defensively responsible, able to kill penalties, able to chip in as well.”
The Penguins’ hope is that the new mix of free agents in the bottom six will help them bounce back and return to the postseason despite their roster’s average age remaining one of the highest in the league.
“It’s trying to find the right fits for the coaching staff and what they want and what we all believe in, which is they’re competitive, they have good speed, they’re defensively reliable and have defensive utility,” Dubas said. “They’re able to chip in and think the game offensively and give us some offensive push in the bottom six.”
Not only does Dubas think the Eller move will pay off down the road, but so does Eller himself. Eller thinks he’ll be able to re-find his lost mojo from last season. He is also excited to stay in the Metropolitan Division where he will match up against the Capitals several times.
“I think I play my best games when there’s the most on the line,” Eller said. “(We) will be facing a lot of playoff caliber teams in our division. The more that’s on the line, the more I rise to the occasion. I like playing in those types of games, playing a lot against my old team. That’ll be a motivational factor for sure.”
RMNB is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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