WASHINGTON, D.C. — Washington Capitals center Lars Eller found himself in a bit of unfamiliar territory on Wednesday, as the pivot shifted to the wing in Wednesday’s tilt against the Tampa Bay Lightning in wake of more line changes.
With Garnet Hathaway ill and the Capitals needing to ignite some offense against the Tampa Bay Lightning after back-to-back lackluster losses, head coach Peter Laviolette shifted Eller from his usual full-time position as the third-line center to the fourth-line left wing to work with Nic Dowd and Johan Larsson.
The combination did a solid job generating chances and pressure at both ends through 11:07 minutes, with a 51.52 expected goals-for percentage. Laviolette liked what he saw from that combination as well, and also liked the fact that No. 20 was able to adapt on the fly and bring some versatility to the table.
“It’s good that he’s getting some shifts here. We still got time, we still got games left to play here,” Laviolette mentioned. “Again, it changes every day as it did today. You go in with a plan, and you come in and you find out that the plan is no longer in place, and you’ve got to come up with a new one.”
The 2021-22 campaign has been an inconsistent one for the 32-year-old. Eller has nine goals and 14 assists through 60 games and is a minus-10. He has come in clutch on a couple of occasions and has also gone on a couple of hot streaks, but he has also experienced a number of lulls and lengthy point droughts. His two-way play has also taken a bit of a turn, and the third line hasn’t truly been able to lock down an identity — and that could be a dealbreaker come playoff time.
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On 4LW, Eller appeared to not only generate more pressure but also create more quality chances and get to those high-danger areas. He also had good chemistry with Larsson and Dowd as the trio worked to bring that physicality and grit that the Capitals’ fourth line has become famous for.
The move also gave more flexibility and options when it came to the rest of the lineup. Connor McMichael, who had been starting to gain some momentum and find his footing at the center position, was able to draw back in after being the odd man out with the team getting fully healthy. McMichael skated 9:51 minutes and ended up producing a couple of chances and showcasing his speed and ability at both ends.
Also, with the Dane playing on the left side, the Capitals would be able to maintain a mostly regular lineup and also get the option of having McMichael continue to thrive down the middle. When it comes to who would end up drawing out, Marcus Johansson may be an option as a healthy scratch. The 31-year-old has played in six games with Washington and has gone without a point and is a minus-4 while averaging 15:25 minutes a night.
Laviolette added that No. 24 was noticeable in his return to the lineup and that he believes the lines ended up working well on such a quick turnaround. It’s a positive sign for the Capitals going forward with the schedule only getting tougher.
“I liked the lines. I thought that the guys competed hard… ended up putting McMichael back in the game, I thought it was another strong showing by him. He played with pace and had some looks and some chances,” Laviolette said.
Ultimately, the move to wing wasn’t a negative. In fact, it helped Eller and the fourth line. Eller needs to continue searching for a spark and ignite his game, and moving to a new position could help with that and provide more options. Also, the move helped the fourth line, as it was able to still generate offense without a gritty forward like Hathaway.
In the end, if Eller can continue to log time on the left side, the Capitals will have more flexibility and versatility down the lineup, and having that is what can separate contenders from non-contenders.