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What does Lars Eller add to the Colorado Avalanche?

AJ Haefele Avatar
March 1, 2023

With the news coming this morning that the Avalanche traded a 2025 (!) second-round pick to the Washington Capitals for Lars Eller, the reaction has been pretty intense for a depth player from a team out east.

Naturally, I wanted to dig a little deeper to get an idea of what Eller can bring to the Avalanche today as he’s now a 33-year-old center who is in his 14th year in the league.

Long one of the NHL’s better depth centers, Eller is certainly in the decline of his career but does that mean the Avs just wasted a draft pick? Let’s take a look.

In terms of basic production, this has certainly not been a good year for Eller as he’s played 60 games and registered seven goals and nine assists for 16 points. For comparison to the team he’s headed to, that’s the same production as Andrew Cogliano but with four extra games played.

Compared to his career, however, it’s on the lower end of what he’s done. Dismissing his rookie year when he was 21, Eller’s worst full-season was the 25 points he registered in 2016-17 in Washinton. He’s never broken 40 points and had five where he scored more than 30 and his career-high in goals is 18 but most years he lands in the 12-14 range.

Eller has never been a prolific offensive player, so anybody looking for him to come to Denver and start producing a grip of points is likely to be disappointed. It’s not really who he has ever been.

When looking through his numbers, it’s always hard to separate the player from the environment he’s been in, and with the injury-ravaged Caps, it was even more difficult to get a good feel for an aging player stuck in a tough situation. Washington’s injury problems are the only ones that can rival what the Avs have gone through this year with the main difference being the Avs have started to get a little healthier and Washington is in the much-tougher eastern conference. I think that’s important context when looking at Eller’s year.

When going through his numbers, it’s easy to see Eller is shooting a career-low 6.9% percent. As mentioned above, he’s never been a volume goal scorer, so his career average was 10.1% coming into this season. That difference isn’t enormous when you’re talking about top-six players who shoot a lot, but when you’re wondering why Eller is struggling to get to his normal range of goals, that’s a good place to start.

Getting beyond the surface stuff and into the fancier stats, we see a pretty similar picture emerging.

While Eller has regularly scored below his expected goals, the difference this year is by far the largest of his career. Is it just poor shooting luck or a total drop-off in skill? The Avs are clearly rolling the dice playing in their environment will help him out a little.

Speaking of environment, I was curious who Eller’s most common linemates were this season. Anthony Mantha and Marcus Johansson, who was just traded to Minnesota this week, have been his top two linemates but then Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Garnet Hathaway are the next on that list. A common denominator among all those players? They’re all shooters and among their primary strengths on offense is scoring goals.

That’s great for Eller’s playmaking, but not a great spot for him to generate much in the way of goals for himself. We can see from one of his player cards this year that he isn’t driving offense on his own but he’s still a quality defensive forward.

Remember that all of these numbers are relative to league average, so we see that he’s a below-average offensive player while being a slightly above-average defensive player. You won’t put him on a power play for any reason, but as a penalty killer, he remains a quality asset.

The PK ability is one of Eller’s main strengths coming to Colorado, a team that has struggled all year with that unit and sits with the 18th-ranked PK in the NHL. Not only is he good on that unit, but his faceoff ability will be a much-welcomed addition to Colorado.

While Eller hasn’t been an exceptional FO guy over his career (in over 10,000 career faceoffs, he’s lost seven more than he’s won), he is having the best season of his career in that regard as he sits with a 54.6% win rate.

As mentioned above, there’s a real fear that Eller is on the steep decline phase of his career, but when you dig into the on-ice results, to me this appears to be a player who may not be quite what he once was but is still capable of playing an important role on a quality team.

This backs up a lot of what has already been mentioned regarding Eller’s poor shooting season but he’s still a decent even-strength player and excels on the PK.

Where I wanted to dig into a little more was how Eller finds his success. Everyone knows the Avalanche want to play an up-tempo game built around transition and getting pucks into the offensive zone with control. Where Colorado struggles is in more of a cycle game with in-zone offense generation. How does Eller stack up here?

We see here that he excels creating opportunities in dangerous areas for his teammates but leaves offense on the table with his own limited goal-scoring ability. In terms of fitting into Colorado’s style, his play in transition is his biggest weakness but his greatest strength at creating offense off the cycle is Colorado’s greatest weakness.

This leads us to the question of whether or not the Avs got a player who will be miscast in their attack-oriented mentality or if they were simply shoring up a weakness and trying to make themselves a little more well-rounded and avoid being a postseason victim to a stylistic matchup they aren’t prepared to handle.

To me, the answer to that question will be determined in how the postseason plays out and what Eller’s contributions to the defense of the Stanley Cup ultimately end up being.

This brings us to postseason success. Eller, whose nickname is ‘Tiger’, is revered in Washington for scoring some big goals in their 2018 Stanley Cup-winning run. In fact, Eller scored 18 points in 24 games, including seven goals, during that run. It was one of the most productive stretches of his entire career.

That’s the pro. The flip side of that conversation is that since that run, Eller has just eight points (and only two goals) in his last 22 postseason games. Nothing here can just be clear and easy, can it?

This dive into Eller’s game brings us to one final question, certainly the most important one of all: Where will Eller play?

Obviously, the answer to this is subject to change with the trade deadline on Friday still looming and the possibility that Colorado isn’t done adding to this group, but let’s take a stab at it anyway, eh?

This doesn’t really touch the top six so for now that should stay pretty much the same. The bottom six is where Eller is going to find a home.

Lehkonen –  MacKinnon – Rodrigues
Nichushkin – Compher – Rantanen
Cogliano – Newhook – O’Connor
Nieto – Meyers – Malgin

That’s where the lineup is right now. I think the easy call right now is to swap Eller in for Meyers because that third line has had some nice chemistry and played quality hockey together, but it wouldn’t shock me if Eller replaced Newhook and Newhook ended up on Eller’s left wing for a little bit.

If the Avs get fully healthy, however, the forward corps could look something like:

Lehkonen – MacKinnon – Landeskog
Nichushkin – Compher – Rantanen
Nieto – Newhook – Rodrigues
Cogliano – Eller – O’Connor
Helm-Meyers-Malgin

It’s a lot of depth at the bottom, but that fourth line would probably get the same minutes as that third line and provide an absolutely miserable group to play against defensively.

The appeal here is obvious; Colorado, a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, acted like one today in shoring up a specific weakness on the roster as they got a veteran with postseason experience who can help raise the floor of their roster and make them just a little harder to score goals against.

The bottom line here is that you can absolutely make the argument the Avalanche overpaid for Eller, especially after a superior player in Pierre Engvall was traded yesterday for a third-round pick, but I’m not here to quibble over that kind of perceived value. I’m more focused on whether or not, given everything above, I believe Eller can have a legitimate impact on the Avalanche winning games in the playoffs.

That answer, for me, is yes, and to me that makes this a fine addition to the roster, even if I don’t love the cost.

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