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Grading the Penguins: Lars Eller and the Crater



Pittsburgh Penguins, Lars Eller

Lars Eller was a bedrock piece of the 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Eller was the voice in the room voicing displeasure and anger when things were chaotic, and the team was lost. Eller was the person willing to call out his team for performances that were stunningly insufficient, if not unprofessional. He played all 82 games with responsibility and purpose.

Eller also scored at a solid rate, adding 15 goals to the Penguins lineup.

However, the Penguins’ third line, led by Eller for nearly all of the 82-game season, was not able to consistently deliver adequate production. The rotating cast of characters included Drew O’Connor, Rickard Rakell, Reilly Smith, Valtteri Puustinen, Jansen Harkins, Colin White, Radim Zohorna, Matt Nieto, and more.

Overall, the line didn’t produce enough offense and shared some of the blame for the Penguins’ regrettable lost third-period leads.

Lars Eller: B

Third Line: D

Eller’s 15 goals were solid. His 31 points were a little low for a third-line center, but he performed exactly as expected and to career norms. He also won more than 52% of his faceoffs.

Actually, he may have outperformed expectations by providing more intangibles than expected.

Fun fact: Eller’s most successful combinations involved Puustinen. When on the ice together, the Penguins scored 15 goals, allowing just seven in 290 minutes. The second most successful was with O’Connor, 12-8, in 298 minutes.

All stats courtesy of

Eller was much less effective when coach Mike Sullivan dropped Smith on the line, as they sported an 11-9 ratio in roughly the same minutes. The Smith-Eller pair also had the worst expected-goals for ratio among the regulars at 51%.

With some surprise, when Zohorna–a bubble NHL player–was on the line, it had an 8-4 goals ratio.

The above mixing and matching tells a greater tale and one in keeping with the Penguins’ season. Even if the numbers said it should be working, it did not. And for all of the disagreement from the respected analytics community, the wins and losses over 82 games tell the tale.

The constant shuffling and trying to find combinations that worked wasn’t coaching impatience but player ineffectiveness. Puustinen had a great start to his NHL career, then disappeared, was sent down, came back with a vengeance, and disappeared.

Puustinen scored one goal and four points in his last 15 games, the final game of which counted for nothing. Smith scored once with seven points and was scoreless in 10 of the games in the same period.

The line scored four goals in those final 15 games.

Eller and O’Connor stood alone in holding up their end of the bargain. O’Connor’s elevation in the lineup by mid-season was a testament to his growth as a player, and the Penguins’ needs higher up the lineup.

At the risk of handing gasoline to arsonists who scapegoated forward Jeff Carter, when the Penguins tried to protect third period leads, Carter often joined the line, which then had a 1-6 goal ratio.

Mixing the stats and the eyes is a never-ending game of debate and interpretation. And any blame about not holding leads or using goal-based stats should fully concede far more factors were involved, such as the defensemen’s third period mistakes, soft goaltending for a spell later in the season (though balanced by great goaltending earlier), and lost net-front battles, which were a team problem.

However, that’s also why the third line gets a terrible grade. The third line is responsible for holding the line against the opponents, protecting leads, and doing the dirty work.

And it just didn’t get there. Eller made a few mistakes, as every player will, even Sidney Crosby. However, Eller was magnified by the treasure trove full of errors and soft coverage by the remainder of the line and defensemen for the bulk of the season.

Eller finished with a minus-1 rating, signifying the struggles the Penguins had on the line to simply allow fewer goals than they scored.

It’s a significant area of need and one that president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas will need to address, but at least there is a centerpiece to build upon.