Within the first 48 hours of free agency, the Washington Capitals checked off all of the boxes on their offseason to-do list — and then some. The team not only revamped its goaltending situation and bolstered the blue line but also added several forwards. In turn, the Capitals now have a surplus in one area, one that will need to be addressed at some point.
But not yet.
Right now, with the addition of Dylan Strome, Washington has five full-time centers ready to dress. Also in the system: Nicklas Backstrom, who is on the long-term injured reserve and remains out indefinitely, and Henrik Borgstrom, who is coming in on a two-way deal and will be an ongoing “project” for the club. And, of course, there are only four spots down the middle up for grabs.
Here’s how the center depth chart stacks up right now:
Looking at the depth chart, it looks like the main competition is at third line center. And the two competing for that spot are Lars Eller and Connor McMichael.
When it comes to the battle between them, a younger McMichael may have the edge heading into 2022-23, as it appears to be his job to lose. McMichael spent 2021-22 mainly playing on the wing when he was in the lineup, but at the end of the season, general manager Brian MacLellan said that he expects No. 24 to make strides at pivot this season, given that’s where he’s more comfortable and where the team believes he can do the most damage. In his rookie season, McMichael had nine goals and nine assists in 68 games.
As for Eller, he is coming off a tough season that saw him experience adversity and inconsistency. The Dane even referred to it as the “most challenging” year of his career. In 72 games last season, Eller dished 13 goals and 18 assists and also put up three points in six playoff games against the Florida Panthers.
Looking at the two head-to-head, McMichael had the stronger advanced statistics at 5-on-5. His expected goals-for percentage of 56.45 led all skaters with at least 40 games played, while Eller ranked fourth-to-last among forwards (48.49). McMichael also had a better shots-for percentage (53.90) and scoring chances-for percentage (54.12) than Eller at 5-on-5 (50.70, 48.65). At all strengths, McMichael also has the upper hand over Eller, also possessing a better Corsi-for percentage and goals-for percentage.
Taking all that into account, there has been some speculation and questions regarding an Eller trade. He has one year left on his contract and carries a cap hit of $3.5 million. The team also faces a cap crunch when Backstrom, Tom Wilson and more come off the LTIR.
However, right now is not the time to trade him. If anything, it’s better to wait until later down the road, especially considering the potential for a stronger return and several other factors.
Eller still brings a lot to the table; he can come in clutch finish his chances and also serve as a versatile player. He has shown great defensive awareness and works well on the penalty kill, a role McMichael hasn’t taken on yet at the NHL level. Having an experienced penalty killer will be vital heading into the year, especially with Backstrom, Wilson and Carl Hagelin all out of the picture to open 2022-23.
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In addition, Eller can be effective on the backcheck and can also engage physically, and he finished last season with 95 hits, whereas McMichael struggled at times getting back, winning battles and finishing checks. And, of course, Eller is more experienced and successful in the face-off dot, though McMichael still needs time to work on winning draws effectively.
Another case for holding on to Eller: as was evident last season, injuries can strike at any time. Having a reliable, experienced option to step up is a good option to have if necessary, especially early on in the campaign.
Plus, there’s no urgent need to make a trade right this second; there’s plenty of time and a lot of room to experiment with the lineup. McMichael could still win a center spot, and Eller could potentially shift to the wing if need be. He played there last season, and while competing with McMichael for the 3C spot, he could get a look there.
Overall, keeping Eller to open the 2022-23 season may be the best move for now. Washington did a solid job addressing needs this offseason, and there’s no need to fix something that’s not broken. At least not for the time being. When it’s time for Wilson or Backstrom or even Hagelin to return, then would be a time to revisit.