New Pittsburgh Penguins center Lars Eller won’t need directions. After eight seasons with the Penguins’ arch-rival Washington Capitals, Eller has been a part of the rivalry, from a string of defeats to the Capitals’ monumental victory in 2018 which catapulted them to the Stanley Cup championship.
Last season, the Capitals traded Eller to the Colorado Avalanche near the NHL trade deadline. Eller chipped in 24 regular season games and seven playoff games for Colorado after 488 games with the Capitals.
Eller had bitter-sweet emotions leaving Washington but admitted facing his old mates “are the fun games” on the schedule. T
Facing a unique free agency period in which many players chose one or two-year deals in anticipation of the NHL salary cap spike that will begin next summer.
For Eller, 32, the Penguins represented the right intersection of short-term deals and the right situation.
“I wanted to do a two-year deal, and we could find common ground on that in Pittsburgh. But I also think that Pittsburgh — I see them being competitive for the next two years with how their team is structured, their contracts, their age, and everything,” said Eller. “I think we’ll be competitive for the next two years, making it a place where it was appealing to be for two years. So those two things went hand in hand with Pittsburgh for me.”
The center had a handful of teams chasing him in the run-up to the NHL free-agent frenzy. Some were more interested than others, according to Ellers, but the chance to play with the star players he’s been forced to chase around the ice was a good selling point, too. The Penguins figure to be competitive for another couple of seasons, despite missing the playoffs last season.
“In the days leading up to and on July 1, probably like a handful of teams with various degrees of interest and but I felt like Pittsburgh was a really good natural fit for my family and me,” said Eller. “I think it checked a lot of boxes that I was looking for. Most of all, it has been and still is a competitive team. I see them as a playoff team. And I think the players that have been Pittsburgh’s best players for over a decade are still there, still the best players, and capable of getting it done.”
Despite starting less than 40% of shifts in the offensive zone, Eller swung the puck possession by more than nearly 15% in his favor, from 34% starts in the defensive zone to a 47.5% shot attempt rate. Eller also won 53.7% of his faceoffs.
“I had a meeting on July 1 with Sully and Todd (Reirden), and we talked — one of the things we talked about on July 1 was kind of what happened last year and how they see what’s going to change going forward,” Eller said. “I think one of the things (to change) is bringing in players like me that can support the best players on the team and down the lineup and having some more secondary scoring.”
Dubas, known to take advanced statistics into account, likely noticed Eller had 23 points (10-13-23) but a career-low shooting percentage (7.1%).
The grinder pivot was the key free agent signing on July 1. The Penguins’ bottom six was an incomplete puzzle without a center after they non-tendered Ryan Poehling. That’s why Dubas called Poehling “really, really key.”
The sides matched up, and the Penguins’ lines are coming into focus. An old enemy is a new friend.
“Certainly, the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Washington. I know those are going to be the fun games, and you’re going to be still competing against all the other top teams in the division,” he said.