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Lars Eller is Having a (Stealthily) Amazing Season

By improving his skating, Eller has done a fantastic job of suppressing shots and playing better defense

Washington Capitals v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Derek Cain/NHLI via Getty Images

Typically, hockey players are the opposite of a fine wine: they don’t get better as they age. In fact, according to Hockey Graphs, players start seeing their most dramatic decline as they enter their 30’s.

Don’t tell this to Lars Eller. Because at 30 years old, Eller is having one of his best seasons in the NHL — and it’s a start that is both sustainable and crucial to the Caps center depth this year.

Lars Eller’s focus on skating isn’t just about speed

We’ve now read a few articles about Eller and his renewed focus on skating this offseason. Samantha Pell (a guest on JRR this week), had a lot of good details in an article this week focusing on Eller’s offseason work (emphasis added):

Eller has worked with three skating coaches over the past four to five years, incorporating bits and pieces from each into his game. This past summer, he worked with local skating coach Wendy Marco to make more significant adjustments.

The 30-year-old wanted to get his upper body more in sync with his lower body to build up his speed. With a focus on his arms, he worked on his alignment, balance and point of gravity to move better on the ice. With the Capitals’ new system so reliant on skating, Eller wanted to be prepared, but trying to change mechanics he had established ­naturally over time is difficult.

There’s a few layers to unpack here, but most important: when NHL players talk about improving their skating, they are NOT just talking about improving their top-line speed. In Eller’s case, he talks about improving his balance and alignment more than speed.

This focus on balance and alignment fits neatly with something that Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson told the New England Hockey Journal last year… skating effectively as a hockey player is as much about agility and acceleration as it is about top-line speed:

“The game is getting so much faster, even at an early age,” Atkinson told Billy Jaffe in New England Hockey Journal. “It’s not so much north-south going 100 miles an hour. It’s being able to use your edge work and cutbacks, throw in a couple of fakes here or there. Your edge work is most crucial.”

So when Eller talks about improving his skating, he’s not just talking about increasing his speed so he can be an elite offensive player. He’s talking about a whole host of other abilities too, skills that have helped Eller on defense as much as offense.

Eller’s skating focus has drastically helped his defense

All that being said, let’s visual the defensive improvements that Eller has shown this year. First, Eller has been suppressing shot attempts at a career-best rate:

Eller shot attempts against per 60

This has carried over to his expected goals against numbers, where he is again suppressing shots at a near-career high:

Eller expected goals against per 60

Granted, Eller’s on ice goal percentage does not quite reflect the above numbers, as he’s averaging around 3.34 goals against per 60 minutes. Yet even this has an easy explanation: the on-ice save percentage when Eller is on the ice is a comically-low 87.7% (the lowest in Eller’s career by a significant margin). This is a number you should expect to see increase, and Eller’s goals-against should concurrently drop.

What does this mean?

When we talk about a player improving their staking, it’s natural to think of improving top line speed or acceleration. Indeed, this is a big part of skating, and it’s part of what makes players like Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon so incredible to watch.

Yet skating can have ramifications beyond just pure offensive skill. When a player like Lars Eller says that they’ve improved their skating, it’s worth listening to them, even if they aren’t elite, flashy offensive players. Indeed, the value of improved skating can lie just below the surface.