CRANBERRY — This has been a season of surprises for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a lot of them haven’t been particularly pleasant.
There’s the power play that should be among the NHL’s most menacing, but which has settled near the bottom of the rankings for most of the past three-plus months. A defenseman, Erik Karlsson, who recently went through an 18-game stretch without a goal after scoring 25 for San Jose last season. Oh, and rather than looking like the Stanley Cup contender they had hoped — and, perhaps, fully expected — to be, the Penguins have only occasionally held a spot in the standings that would translate to a place in the playoffs.
But there’s at least one thing — the play of Lars Eller — that has gone exactly as they envisioned.
The Penguins signed Eller as a free agent last summer because they wanted someone who could be a prototypical third-line center: A guy who is, above all, defensively reliable and responsible, but who also can make meaningful contributions to the offense.
That’s the niche Eller, 34, filled during stops in St. Louis, Montreal, Washington and Colorado, so grafting him onto the depth chart behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin became a July 1 priority for the Penguins.
It is looking like a shrewd decision by Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas and his staff.
“My recollection of (coaching) against Lars is mostly when he was in Washington, and he was a big part of those teams,” coach Mike Sullivan said after practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex Wednesday. “He was a defensive player for them who had an offensive dimension. A good penalty-killer, hard to play against and a smart player. Now, having had him for half a season here, it’s just more affirmation that my recollection of what he was in Washington, he’s bringing to the Penguins right now.
“I think he’s playing good hockey. Within the last month, I think he’s been playing his best hockey for us. I think a big part of that, within the last month, is just adding the offensive dimension to his game. He’s always a sound defensive player, but I think that most recently, his confidence is improving and I think he’s bringing an offensive dimension to his line that helps us create more balance through our lineup.
“He was everything we hoped we were going to get when we signed him. He certainly is fulfilling his role here on this team.”
Eller has seven goals, including four in the past eight games, and six assists in 39 games this season. He’s averaging 14 minutes, 57 seconds of ice time per game, 2:23 of which is spent killing penalties, and has taken 421 faceoffs, more than any Pittsburgh Penguins player except Crosby.
It is fitting that there’s nothing eye-catching about most of those numbers, since little about Eller’s work is spectacular. He specializes in being sound and solid, not sensational.
“He’s really responsible, defensively,” Crosby said. “But he’s dangerous, offensively. So it’s not like he’s just focused on trying to shut you down, He’s trying to score, too.”
He cited Eller’s poise with the puck as being particularly impressive.
“He’s got a lot of patience, when it comes to making plays,” Crosby said. “He’s been put in a role, throughout his career, to be a responsible, two-way center, but offensively, he’s got some really good instincts. He makes some great plays. I think that’s probably underrated, just because of the role he plays.”
Eller is working between Reilly Smith and Valtteri Puustinen, but had Drew O’Connor, who bumped Smith off the second line last Saturday, on his left side for much of the season. O’Connor was with Eller long enough to get a real appreciation for his game.
“He’s a really responsible center,” O’Connor said. “One thing I especially notice is that when we’re on the ice together, we don’t give up a ton of chances, and his positioning and making sure he’s making the right plays. Offensively, he’s pretty good, too, when the opportunities are there.”
Nowhere near as good, of course, as Crosby and Malkin. Their point totals, like their profiles, are exponentially higher than Eller’s, which he insists is not a problem.
“Not the slightest,” Eller said. “One of the reasons I signed here was, I wanted to play for a good team I thought had a chance to compete. To have a chance to compete, you need to have two really good centermen in front of you, and I have that here.”
And they have a strong No. 3 directly behind them.