TAMPA, Fla. — Why did it take toiling in the league for nine long seasons before Lars Eller finally had a breakthrough season? Well, the easy answer is money.
The 29-year-old, who had never scored more than 30 points, entered this season in a contract year. That could explain why the Eller suddenly put up a career-best 18 goals and 38 points in the regular season, something that the Washington Capitals rewarded him with a five-year contract extension worth US$17.5 million in February.
But it only tells half the story.
Traded from the team that drafted him 13th overall in 2007 and misused for years in Montreal, where Eller admitted he “bounced around — a lot,” the Danish forward has finally found a home in Washington, D.C., where his role keeps expanding.
With Nicklas Backstrom nursing a hand injury, Eller was bumped up to the second line where he logged 20 minutes and 35 seconds — the most of any forward from either team — in the 4-2 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. Eller scored the third goal of the game when Alex Ovechkin fanned on a shot on the power play that ended up Eller’s stick. It was his fourth goal and eighth point of the playoffs.
“I think I definitely found my identity as a player that maybe when I was in Montreal I lost that at times,” said Eller. “And now I’m paying more minutes when Nicky is out, but I play the same way, even if I’m on the first line, second line, third line. You go out there with the same mindset. The mindset doesn’t change. I played that same game, but I think I’m a player who’s a good two-way player. I can play power play, short-handed, in all kinds of situations.
“I kind of lost that identity (in Montreal) with what kind of game I needed to play to be successful. I bounced around a lot. I mean a lot. Whereas I’ve had a lot more stability here.”
It was in Montreal where Eller spent five years of middling success. Part of it was misplaced expectations. As a top draft pick, it was easy to look at Eller with top-line potential. But, like the Canadiens’ frustration with Alex Galchenyuk, the offence never came. He didn’t know who he was, because coaches and management couldn’t decided what player they wanted him to be.
It wasn’t until he arrived in Washington, where the demands on him were more precise and to the point, as well as more realistic. Playing behind Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, he was finally slotted in an appropriate role.
“I always thought I had good abilities, but it’s about learning how to use your abilities to the best,” said Eller, who seemed to take a stab at his former team in praising the winning environment in Washington.
“The culture is so important. They had such a strong culture here. If you have the right mindset and you want to learn, you’re going to become a good player. And a good team is going to become a great team when you have great leaders. Just watching Backstrom and Kuznetsov, I learned a ton. They have a calmness to their game.”
Now that Backstrom is out and Eller’s minutes and role has increased, that calmness has been on display as he matches up against Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay’s top forward line.
“He’s been great all year,” said Capitals forward T.J. Oshie. “He kind of falls in the shadow of our other two centremen, who are world-class players, but Lars has been a very big part of our team’s success this year.”
“He’s a guy who can play first-, second-, third-line — it doesn’t matter where you put him, he’s got a lot of skill, a lot to give,” said Capitals forward Jay Beagle. “He’s playing a role right now where he’s playing against the top line and doing an unbelievable job. He did that against Pitt the last two games. No surprise to us.”
So, does this mean that Eller has designs on increasing his role? Not quite. While he’s happy with the increased ice time and added responsibility, he knows his role. And Washington does, too.
“I don’t think the mindset changes a lot,” said Eller. “I try to play the same game the way I have the whole year. I want to score goals, I want to create offence. It doesn’t really change a lot. I know I’m going to be playing a couple more minutes. And as a team, we know we have to step up.
“It’s a good feeling. I embrace that. That’s what I want to be. It’s the playoffs and you want to be out there as much as possible.”
BEAGLE BARKING LOUDEST
Lars Eller has scored twice as many goals as teammate Jay Beagle in this year’s playoffs. But Beagle still owns bragging rights.
“Me and (Beagle) have a great relationship actually,” said Eller, who has four goals to Beagle’s two. “We push each other a lot. We had a scoring competition (in practice) the last four or five months and we actually scored more in the games, too. You can feed off his energy a bit and I think he feeds off me as well.
“What can you say about him? He’s a heart and soul guy.”
Both Eller and Beagle scored in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. When it comes to practices, Beagle has had slightly more success.
“I think it’s close,” said Eller. “I think he might be up one in practices but if you take the games in account, I’ll be up a few.”
Of course, Eller is averaging more than four minutes per games.
“That helps,” he said, “but (Beagle) would say that’s no excuse.”
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos