What a difference two weeks makes. Just a fortnight ago the Washington Capitals had a slew of unknowns regarding their lineup for the coming season. Two weeks later, there is a log jam at several positions. Whether you like the additions or not, the roster is full. In fact, it might be too full.
The Capitals lost the services of Tom Wilson for at least the first half of the season after he underwent knee surgery in June. As a result, right winger Connor brown was acquired last week in a trade with the Ottawa Senators, ending any concerns related to a right wing deficiency.
Nicklas Backstrom is also out for the foreseeable future, if not longer. To bolster the center position, the Capitals signed restricted free agent Dylan Strome, giving the Capitals at least five capable centers on their current roster. [Click to enlarge]
Lars Eller is likely the eventual odd man out. His performance dipped again last season, recording 13 goals and 18 assists in 72 games for a .43 points per game average in the 2021-22 season. He recorded eight goals and 15 assists in 44 games for a .52 points per game average the previous season.
Eller is in the final year of his current deal with the Capitals, making a trade even more likely. One way or another, his time in DC is likely drawing to a close. The question is when?
Old Dogs And New Tricks
Following the Capitals first round loss to the Panthers in May, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan was asked if the team was slow and needed an infusion of speed. He disagreed. “I think we need a youth injection more than a speed injection. I’m not buying that we’re slow” said MacLellan. “Speed wise, I don’t know that Florida is faster than us. I think they maybe play a little faster, but actual speed, I think we’re just as fast as them.”
The average age of the Capitals roster is among the oldest in the NHL, and MacLellan has stated he wants to address team age this offseason. Eller, 33, could be seen as an aging component that could be easily replaced by Connor McMichael, or even Aliaksei Protas, both just 21 years of age.
The acquisition of Brown and Strome can also be seen a a combined future replacement of Eller. Strome could eventually end up centering the third line as the season progresses and players return from injury, but just as important, Connor Brown, a strong penalty killer for Ottawa, would likely replace Eller on the Capitals penalty kill.
Timing Is Key
The safe play is to start training camp in September with Eller in the fold, and make a call regarding McMichael and Protas’ ability to take over the position by the end of camp. McMichael will have a lot to say on the timing of a potential deal.
If Laviolette and McLellan determine that they still haven’t seen enough from McMichael and Protas by the end of training camp, it’s likely Eller begins the season with the Capitals. The ideal scenario at that point is the youth eventually prove they are ready to take over by New Years. Eller would be subsequently dealt before the trade deadline.
It’s A Matter Of When
Eller will always be a legend in Capitals lore. His goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2018 has assured him free beer in DC for eternity. Unfortunately, as we all know, transition is a perpetual component of the NHL lifecycle, and father time is undefeated.
Eller will likely be traded. There is a slight chance the Capitals feel comfortable enough right now to make a deal this summer, however, the safest play is to wait until training camp and see how McMichael and Protas are progressing, and make a decision before opening night.
If Eller remains with the team to start the season, it’s most likely he will be dealt before the trade deadline, in order to get something in return. After the trade deadline he essentially becomes a free agent and there will be no return for the Capitals.
There is always a chance that Eller remains for the entire season, which would be a mixed bag of meaning. It would mean the kids couldn’t step up, or the Capitals and Eller are having a dominant season and Laviolette and McLellan don’t want to mess with success, at any cost.
By Jon Sorensen