ARLINGTON, V.A. — Lars Eller glances over at the empty practice rink at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, taking a moment to reflect on both the good and the bad moments that unfolded on that ice over the course of a wild season. On the morning of another too-soon Capitals breakdown day, Eller isn’t afraid to admit that this was one of his toughest years yet — nor does he try to hide from it.
The veteran center is open as he discusses the 2021-22 campaign, which saw him experience a fair share of adversity, along with constant change, some inconsistency and arguably, lost opportunity.
“It was probably the most challenging season I’ve had here in terms of things that were going on around me,” Eller admitted. “A lot of changes with lines, and also, being out myself twice. So it was probably the most challenging season in terms of that.”
Going into the year, Eller was expected to help fill Nicklas Backstrom’s void on the top-6 as No. 19 rehabilitated a lingering hip injury. However, he couldn’t quite find consistency or production and went without a goal through the first 12 games of the season. After that, on a west-coast road swing, Eller found himself quarantined in Anaheim after being the first Washington player to test positive for COVID-19.
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While he felt physically fine and didn’t struggle with breathing, Eller remained stuck in a hotel room for 10 days, where he had nothing to do but wait. He had called the experience “unhealthy” and said the isolation took a toll mentally. That, in turn, made it difficult for him to get back into the swing of things.
“It was more coming in and out… interrupting the flow of what you had going on on the ice,” Eller explained. “I think it was more that than anything.”
After that, the virus spread through the Capitals locker room and across the league. The outbreak and several injuries throughout the lineup resulted in Eller moving up and down the lineup. He spent time on the top and bottom-6, and amid continued inconsistency and more absences, switched to the wing.
Later in the year, though, Eller started to heat up and find a spark again but would be interrupted by COVID once again on a Canadian road swing that led to quarantine across the border in Vancouver.
“It was probably toward the end where I played my best hockey… our line stuck together for a game there, and I felt like, ‘Okay, we have something here.’ And then, I had to stay back and I was out again,” Eller said. “So yeah, it was a challenging year.”
Ultimately, Eller broke through in April with eight points in 12 games, including points in four straight outings, to end the year with 13 goals and 18 assists through 72 games. He then had a goal and two assists through six games in the first round against Florida.
“I think I ended on a good note… when we got a little bit more stability,” Eller said. “I think I was trending the right way. Playoffs is still, you’re still a little bit emotionally attached to that, saying it wasn’t good enough or we should have done this or we should have done that. I think that still plays into my thinking. I haven’t distanced from all that yet.”
Looking back at the season, Eller couldn’t quite maintain his spot on the top-6. However, he served an important role on the penalty kill, won face-offs and engaged in puck battles, and off the ice, he was honest and vocal in the room.
Still, the Dane struggled with puck possession and was on the ice for the 10th-most goals against at 5-on-5. He also had the second-lowest scoring chances for percentage (48.65) among forwards with at least 50 games played.
Eller said over the summer, he’ll mainly remain in D.C. and work with skating coach Wendy Marco to continue to improve his stride.
With Backstrom’s future still up in the air and Connor McMichael expected to take on a bigger role at center next season, Eller still has a lot to prove and plenty of opportunity. Now, it’s just a matter of capitalizing.