Prior to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s arrival and emergence in the NHL, much of the Alex Ovechkin Era of Caps hockey was characterized, in part, by a seemingly endless search for a second top-six center to complement Swedish wunderkind Nicklas Backstrom.
Michael Nylander. Sergei Fedorov. Brendan Morrison. Eric Belanger. Jason Arnott. Mike Ribiero. Mikhail Grabovski. Mathieu Perreault. Marcus Johansson. Brooks Laich. Eric Fehr.
Those are just some of the guys who had their shot at being The Answer prior to Kuznetsov’s long-awaited debut. The Caps’ quest for a second-line center (nominally, if not literally) was seemingly the fetch quest that, once accomplished, would finally let them sip from Lord Stanley’s chalice (one need only look 240 miles up I-70 to see how that worked).
And the reality wasn’t that far off. Sure, there were plenty of reasons for their playoff failures prior to Kuznetsov arriving, and the lack of a quality second fiddle to Backstrom was only one bullet on the list (albeit usually high up on the list, Fedorov’s brilliance notwithstanding). But in Kuznetsov’s first full season, the Caps went from missing the playoffs to winning a round (thanks, in large part, to his series-winning goal, the biggest goal of his career... at that point), followed by back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and disappointing second-round losses to the eventual Cup champs, followed by... well, you know:
Frankly, a very strong argument could be made that Kuznetsov deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but we’re not here to litigate that.
Of course, that beginning of that four-year run was marked by some other pretty massive organizational changes, but it’s hard to overstate the impact that (finally) having two elite centers in their respective primes made for the Caps.
And it wasn’t just Backstrom and Kuznetsov. In the middle of that four-year stretch, the Caps made an offseason trade sending a couple of second-round picks (that turned into Joni Ikonen and Olivier Rodrigue) to Montreal for center Lars Eller. Eller immediately solidified the third line, scored 30 goals in his first two regular seasons, filled in admirably for Backstrom or Kuznetsov when needed, and did this to cap off his second playoff run as a Cap:
Add in Jay Beagle’s stalwart fourth-line duties and, for a couple of years at least, the team that spent a decade futilely trying to patch its holes down the middle had some of the best pivot depth in the game... and commensurate results.
Smash-cut to today, nearly four years later. Evgeny Kuznetsov has had well-documented ups and downs in the interim (and is thankfully on an “up” for the most part this season). Nicklas Backstrom led the team in scoring a season ago, but spent most of the first half of this season injured. Lars Eller hasn’t been able to recapture the magic he had with Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly. Jay Beagle got a big payday and left town.
And they’re all four years older - Kuznetsov will turn 30 in May; Backstrom is 34; Eller will be 33 in May.
The latter two, in particular, seem to be showing their age and, if we’re being honest, are having pretty rough seasons, as this chart’s labels put it pretty bluntly:
Here are Evolving-Hockey’s Player Cards for the two:
As points of reference, just last season Backstrom was at 93 overall, 91 offense, 90 defense; Eller was 68-52-88. Basically, both of these guys have fallen off a cliff:
The irony, of course, is that the previous recent low point for both was in 2017-18 when... well, you know. But that was four years ago. Is Backstrom struggling this year because he’s still not 100 percent or he’s rusty or he lacks quality wingers or the team’s generally in the doldrums... or because he’s 34? How much are you betting on a bounce-back? (The Caps are betting $9.2 million for each of the next three years.)
And what about Eller? His hit has really come on the defensive side, which may not be particularly surprising given how much time he’s spent skating with Connor McMichael and/or Daniel Sprong, but that doesn’t absolve him. To wit, no Caps trio has a higher expected Goals-Against rate at five-on-five (and they don’t have the expected Goals-For to mitigate it):
Does Eller get back on track when the Caps are healthy and he’s skating with, say, Conor Sheary and T.J. Oshie? (The trio of McMichael-Eller-Oshie wasn’t bad in New York on Thursday night.)
The big questions, of course, are what do these guys have left in the tank and are there legitimate mitigating factors for this year’s performances... or just excuses we’re making for a couple of our favorite players? Things certainly aren’t trending in the right direction:
Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller have certainly earned the benefit of the doubt for what they’ve done for this club in the past (and recent past). But right now the Caps are “better off without” them on the ice at fives, and that reality isn’t tenable for long. Peter Laviolette needs to figure out how to get his middle-six centers going and turn the position back into one of the team’s biggest strengths if the Caps are going to have any success going forward.