As Evgeny Kuznetsov recovers from his upper body injury sustained against the New York Islanders on February 10th, Lars Eller has been slotted into his vacancy on the second line with TJ Oshie and Jakub Vrana. Earlier this season, Eller Played in the top six while Nicklas Backstrom was also ailing from an upper body injury.
It’s been no secret, especially since the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, that Eller is comfortable and productive when elevated from his normal third line assignment. In this piece, we’ll take a look at his performances in a top six role, compared to his more normal deployments as the team’s third line center. Thanks go out to Natural Stat Trick and Hockey-Reference for all statistics used in this article.
2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Let’s establish some context first. Coming into Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Backstrom was ruled out due to an upper body injury that was later described as a broken finger. Backstrom would miss Game Six against the Penguins, as well as the first three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. As we already know, the Caps had a 3-1 record with Eller skating on the second line.
Let’s take a look at what his stats looked like in those four games compared to the rest of his playoff performance as the third line center:
There was certainly an elevation in Eller’s game when it came to the possession metrics Corsi For and Fenwick For, as well as the on-ice goals for percentage at 5 on 5 play.
In Game Six against the Penguins and in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Lightning, the Caps had really strong showings, going 3-0 in that stretch. The main difference between these two figures are down to sample size. Eller scored at a slightly higher points per game pace while on the third line, but those were with line-mates he had consistent chemistry and deployments with all season.
Coming onto the second line and contributing a .50 points per game pace against some of the best competition the NHL had to offer that season is surely nothing to stick your nose up on.
Eller was statistically on the ice for more goals for than goals against, especially at even strength. The possession metrics reflect that, since Eller and his line-mates were more likely than not to be in the offensive end taking shot attempts. The proof is on tape here, since the Caps outscored their opponents 14 to 9 in the four games Eller was the second line pivot.
Filling in for Backstrom (11-19 to 12-08)
There’s not much to dig into here. Eller was a solid .5 points per game pace again while deployed in a top six role, and was on the ice for more goals for than goals against at even strength. There starts to be a trend where Eller brings a bit more defensive responsibility and capable offensive talents to the second line, where more of the offensive talent resides.
The biggest thing to take away here is, through the first 23 games played this season, the Capitals were pretty dominant regarding possession, which inflated the possession metrics a bit. The tail end of Eller’s stint in the top six is when the Caps overall quality of play diminished.
Filling in for Kuznetsov (2-13 – 2-15)
Since there’s a smaller sample here, we can take a look at the past two games that Kuznetsov has missed. There’s a stark differential between these two games. Eller was part of a dominant possession performance in the second half of the game against the Avalanche, racking up a Corsi For and a Fenwick For over 60%, which is impressive.
The game last night against Arizona was much different. The second line in totality struggled, and there’s not much more to take away from this to explain that effort. Arizona is a defensively focused and responsible team, so their line matchups were exact in shutting down the Caps’ top six group from scoring.
All in all, Eller has shown that he can be a capable and productive top six forward in a crunch. It’s hard to say how he’d fare in a regular top six role, but his play in short stints has shown he can be trusted when Kuznetsov or Backstrom are injured.
In today’s NHL, where center depth is paramount, you can never have too many solid centers on your team. Ultimately, that center depth led the Caps to be able to overcome an otherwise catastrophic injury to Backstrom en route to a Stanley Cup championship in 2018.
With the long grind of the season and the buzzsaw that is the NHL Playoffs, players like Eller that can elevate their game in more premier roles are a hot commodity.
By Justin Trudel