Former Washington Capitals teammates ribbed Pittsburgh Penguins center Lars Eller after he signed a two-year, $4.9 million deal with the Penguins on July 1. Young Penguins forward Drew O’Connor has been on the slow march towards a regular NHL sweater, with ups followed by downs, hot streaks followed by ice-cold stretches, and plates of press box nachos.
This season, the duo find themselves depending on each other as much as the Penguins will depend on them to provide the capable and dependable third-line production that has eluded the team for several seasons.
The deployment of the Penguins’ lines also depends on it.
The litany of third-line centers that have come and quickly gone over the last five years might bring a clenched fist or gritted teeth to Penguins fans. Management might have the same reaction. The list is prominent, from Derrick Brassard to Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann to Jeff Carter.
The third-line wingers have been equally unsuccessful, at least in Penguins uniforms. From Brandon Tanev to McCann to the likes of Danton Heinen and Mikael Granlund, the team has been most unsuccessful in generating sufficient offense or even puck possession from the third line.
I can almost feel your eyes rolling when reading those names. McCann’s offensive boom in Seattle is a discussion about GM mistakes for another day.
With new management comes new opportunities. Eller, the long-time Capitals center, turned sweater to join the hated rivals in a move that could have significant benefits for the Penguins and keep the Capitals at home in April.
“A little bit (of grief from former teammates). They thought it was a little weird — ‘Of all the places, that’s where you’re going?!’ You know, it was funny,” Eller told PHN. “So I had a few of those.
“I think it’s inspiring to come over to Pittsburgh and play with some of the best players in this generation. It’s a great privilege. I would just say that I’m excited to suit up with them and see what we can do.”
The now Pittsburgh Penguins pivot is not known for big offensive numbers. Last season split between the Capitals and Colorado Avalanche, Eller posted only 23 points in 84 games. However, an emerging power forward may be the Penguins’ answer and the offensive complement to Eller’s defensive game.
PHN approached O’Connor Sunday after the Penguins beat the Columbus Blue Jackets in their first preseason game. The 6-foot-3 forward was reclined in his locker stall, his elbows resting on the back shelf.
“I don’t usually play that many minutes,” he said, partially joking and partially exhausted from a heavy workload.
O’Connor has been one of the standouts in training camp and preseason. He scored two more goals on Thursday, including the empty netter to seal a 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
Preseason stats usually matter as much as a politician’s promise or next month’s weather forecast, but O’Connor’s recent trend confirms this isn’t merely a training camp surge against lesser competition.
After a few years of toiling between the NHL and AHL, with more than a few trips back and forth on I-80 between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, O’Connor shoved his way into the lineup later last season. By February, he was a regular. In March, he was a contributor.
“I like what he’s doing. He’s a pretty big body that can skate. You can see he’s strong in the puck, and he’s got some moves,” Eller said. “I think he’s a very versatile player. The skating is a big strength of his, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”
Last May, O’Connor was a star for Team USA at the World Championships. The team, coached by close Sullivan friend David Quinn, deployed O’Connor as a center, and the daily box scores prominently featured the Penguins project.
“I was playing a more offensive role over there. So, I think doing things like that can help your confidence,” O’Connor said. “It’s nice to have a little success over there. It was a lot of fun playing for Team USA and a great experience. Yeah, it’s made me want to carry some of that over into the season for sure.”
Last season, the regular season numbers were not impressive. O’Connor posted 11 points (5-6-11) in 46 games, but it wasn’t the stats but the obvious progression for the now 25-year-old forward.
O’Connor picked up where he left off months ago, though perhaps a little better for the experiences. Now, O’Connor is consistently playing in the corners and near the net. His plus-level skating creates space as defenders give ground.
Importantly, Eller and O’Connor are showing quick and easy chemistry. Eller set up O’Connor’s goal Thursday. The pair relatively dominated during their time on the ice, often pushing offensive chances and puck possession. Eller also sprang O’Connor on one breakaway, followed by O’Connor claiming another later in the second period.
After flameouts, GM mistakes, and players not wanting the third-line role (*ahem, Derrick Brassard), the Penguins have perhaps found the solution with an inexpensive option on the NHL free-agent market and a player who signed a late deal before arbitration for two years at a $925,000 AAV.
If nothing else, realize the Penguins’ third line, with new addition Matt Nieto ($900,000), who also looked very good Thursday with a fast transition game and tight puck pressure, will cost less than Granlund. It will also cost only slightly more than Carter’s $3.125 million AAV.
And it has a pretty good chance at success.