The Washington Capitals were absolute world-beaters in 2015-2016. That is, at least during the regular season when they amassed a whopping 120 points to easily capture the Presidents’ Trophy. Individual awards included Barry Trotz winning the Jack Adams as best coach and Braden Holtby the Vezina as top goaltender.
But once again, the fans’ hopes were crushed as the squad failed to generate a deep playoff run. The second round proved to be their kryptonite, where they were vanquished by the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins.
Eller was acquired via trade July 1, with MacLellan sending two future second-round picks to the Montreal Canadiens. Eller is thought of as the perfect third-line center to complement their top two players down the middle: Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Like management, Eller also sees the wisdom in keeping this rendition of the Capitals intact.
“When you’re that dominant in the regular season like [we] were last year, there’s probably not a lot of reasons to make big changes,” Eller says. “You already have a good core in place with a world-class goalie, a high-powered offense and a well-structured defense. I think we have all those key ingredients in place to have a good playoff run.”
Eller was part of a big playoff push with Montreal in 2013-2014 when they made it to the conference finals as one of four teams remaining in the format. They were beaten by the New York Rangers, just two victories away from making it to the Stanley Cup finals.
“You can learn a lot from your losses,” Eller says. “Hopefully, I can help us get over the hump.”
Eller is an attractive pickup by the Capitals in that he is young – 27 years old – but has ample experience with eight seasons of pro hockey under his belt. He’s big at 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, and a quick skater and effective penalty killer. The Caps are hoping Eller will also bring more offense to the third line, as he had 26 points last season with 13 goals and 13 assists.
“I think I’m a versatile player who can play a good two-way game,” Eller says. “I’ve certainly had some experience killing penalties over the years, but also at five-on-five and the power play as well.”
It was good that Eller had the summer to absorb the news of the trade and prepare to move his wife, Julie, and young daughter to Washington after spending the past six years in Montreal. One of the first things he noticed was DC’s mugginess in the summer months.
“It’s very hot,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s been good so far. I’m just starting to find my way around. It’s been nothing but positives.”
Eller is not too acquainted with the Washington players just yet. He’s most familiar with forward T.J. Oshie, whom he knows from his first year with the St. Louis Blues. The team drafted him in the first round, 13th overall, in 2007. Oshie himself is a relatively new Cap, with one season in Washington on his resume, so he will likely help Eller get adjusted as the season progresses.
Besides being a new Capital, Eller is also somewhat of a novelty league-wide, as he is one of just a handful of players that hails from Denmark. Frans Nielsen became the first Dane to play an NHL game when he suited up with the Islanders in 2007. Eller says he always recognized the Capitals as a dangerous opponent with a high-powered offense during his days with Montreal, and that he is excited about the prospect of the upcoming season.
“Once Trotz took over, [we] took the structure up a notch or two. [We’re] a bit more disciplined and harder to play against. Before, it was all offense, but [we’ve] been harder to play against the past two years.”
There’s no reason to believe Washington won’t be a dominant club again. Captain Alex Ovechkin netted 50 goals again last season. Backstrom had 70 points and Kuznetsov is a superstar in the making, registering a team-leading 77 points during a breakout season. The remaining forwards as well as the defense corps are more than solid. Goaltender Holtby is coming off of a sensational 48-win campaign.
For more information on the 2016-2017 season, go to www.nhl.com/capitals.
Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Capitals