The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the NHL’s oldest teams for years, but they don’t always showcase the wisdom and decision-making that should come with age.
They can’t help it. It’s in their DNA. They’re wild horses by nature. They want to freewheel, they want to score as many goals as humanly possible, and truth be told, they’ve developed some habits over the years that aren’t all that becoming.
They occasionally need players who, for lack of a better term, play like adults.
Enter Lars Eller.
Penguins GM Kyle Dubas did a lot of good things this summer, and I suspect his trade for the incomparable Erik Karlsson will someday be remembered as one of the most magnificent heists in franchise history.
But don’t forget about his decision to bring in Eller, who puts defense first, is a penalty-killing ace and can be trusted late in games while preserving a lead. Any NHL team needs players like Eller, but teams like the Penguins particularly need them.
Think Matt Cullen. Think Nick Bonino. Even though he wasn’t old enough to buy a beer in 2009, when the Penguins of the Sidney Crosby era claimed their first championship, think of the precocious Jordan Staal.
Sometimes, that cross-ice pass isn’t necessary, and that drop pass really isn’t prudent. Indeed, sometimes dumping the puck to the opposite end of the rink is the right move, and having that veteran touch to avoid an icing infraction is even better.
Eller is one of those guys, and he has been for a long time.
“He’s just so smart,” said Drew O’Connor, his linemate. “He does everything well.”
That pretty much sums it up.
The Penguins have won five consecutive games, and their big guns are naturally receiving much of the attention. Crosby is on a nine-game scoring streak and recorded a virtuoso hat trick in Columbus on Tuesday. Evgeni Malkin has been a man possessed all season. Karlsson has nine points in his past five games.
Yes, the stars are suddenly shining brighter than their ages would have you believe.
But what are stars such as Crosby, Malkin and Karlsson without someone like Eller providing backup?
The Penguins’ penalty killing is a strength right now. They’re currently 10th in the NHL with a penalty kill conversion rate of 85 percent. Last season, the Penguins’ penalty killing, long a curious strength despite the Penguins’ preference for offense, faded to 16th in the league. They killed only 79 percent of their penalties last season.
Many of the new Penguins, along with a defensively resurgent Kris Letang, have made penalty killing a strength this season. Eller has played a role. He also scored one of the season’s biggest goals, a shorthanded beauty in Los Angeles last week that pulled the Penguins even with the Kings late in the second period in a game they’d win in overtime. Many of the Penguins have said in the aftermath that the win against the Kings jump-started their season, and that win doesn’t happen without Eller weaving around Drew Doughty and burying a shot that gave them life.
Eller isn’t an offensive dynamo, but he has six points in 14 games and scores enough to be relevant on that end of the ice. The opposition doesn’t score when he’s on the ice, as it’s been throughout his career.
He seems very pleased with his decision to sign with the Penguins.
“I feel good,” he said. “My body feels good. I feel on top of things. I feel as good as I’ve ever felt in this game. I’m glad to be here.”
He’s glad to be centering the Penguins’ third line, too.
Early in the season, the Penguins’ bottom six was the punchline to many a joke. The third and fourth lines couldn’t really do anything well, and the Penguins stumbled out of the gates to a 3-6 start despite their superstars being in strong form.
No one is joking about the third line anymore.
Starting, coincidentally, during the Penguins’ worst performance of the season a few weeks ago in St. Louis, Eller began to center a line that included O’Connor and Radim Zohorna.
The line has become a foundation for the Penguins — good defensively, good at puck possession and producing enough offense to warrant its ice time.
Zohorna’s recall from the AHL — he never should have begun the season in Wilkes-Barre — clearly has triggered this line. The big man, however, gives much of the credit to his center.
“I’m trying to think of the best way to say it,” Zohorna said last week in Los Angeles. “Lars is our brain out there.”
Perfect. Eller doesn’t wow you with his physical attributes, though it should be noted that he is uncommonly strong on the puck, a fitting strength for this third line that’s at its best when it’s holding onto pucks deep in the offensive zone.
That clear ability aside, Eller isn’t flashy. He doesn’t blow you away with his skills. I suspect that, other than friends and family, very few people have ever purchased tickets with the explicit intention of watching Eller play.
What people do pay money for is watching championship-level hockey. And you don’t play that kind of hockey without the proper blend of offense and defense. You don’t do it without players like Eller.
The Penguins are a country mile away from being a championship-level team. A five-game winning streak doesn’t eliminate their warts. Dubas has work ahead of him, and this team needs to show a level of consistency it hasn’t in a few years.
In Eller, though, they’ve landed an important piece even if it’s not an exciting one.
“I think we have a team where everybody slots very well into where they are,” Eller said. “Everyone is in the slot where they’re good. I think that’s what we’re starting to see here. I’m encouraged.”
While Crosby and Karlsson met with reporters after their wondrous exploits in Tuesday’s game in Columbus, Eller was the third player who remained in the locker room, quietly explaining how he saw the Penguins coming together as a team.
Even after hours, he was providing backup to his team’s stars, just like Cullen and Bonino did once upon a time.
(Photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)