It’s hard to classify Elias Lindholm’s first season with the Flames as anything but a success. Even with a decline in production down the stretch and into the playoffs, Lindholm was a positive addition and a great fit on the right side of Calgary’s top line. But is he best used on the wing with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau? For a few reasons, moving Lindholm to centre could be very beneficial for the Flames.
Is it a good fit?
Shifting Lindholm to the middle isn’t a brand new concept. Head coach Bill Peters mentioned it during the regular season and even tried it a few times late in the season. Then, at Monday’s locker cleanout, Peters brought it up again without being asked.
“When I talked to Lindy, I talked about possibly being a centerman,” Peters said. “I’ll try and let him know before he gets here for training camp. He’s got a chance to play for Sweden at the World Championship; he doesn’t know if he’s going to be a winger or a centre there. I’ve seen him play centre, I know he’s more than capable of doing that and if we do that then we need somebody to go in and play on that wing.”
Let’s not forget Lindholm was drafted as centre, not a winger, by Carolina in 2013. For the most part, though, he’s been used on the wing during his career. Peters used him sparingly down the middle this season in Calgary but used him there a little more in 2017-18, their final year with the Canes.
“I played more centre last year than usual and this year I played wing,” Lindholm said on Monday. “Obviously for me it doesn’t really matter; I just do the best I can in every position. But yeah, if they want me to play centre I’m ready to play centre, I don’t care.”
A look at Lindholm’s underlying numbers throughout his career shows a responsible two-way winger, which makes sense knowing his background as a centre. Underlying stats courtesy Natural Stat Trick.
Knowing he’s familiar with the position, and knowing how well he’s performed in the two-way game, I’m confident Lindholm has what it takes to play down the middle in the NHL. His work on the penalty kill this season adds to that confidence; it showed off his defensive instincts and awareness on a consistent basis.
The final thing to consider when having this conversation is Lindholm’s work in the faceoff dot. While he sparingly took draws in the first four years of his career, Lindholm has been used in the faceoff dot far more often the last two seasons. As you can see, he’s been pretty proficient.
Whether you put a ton of stock into taking faceoffs or not, it’s part of what goes along with being a centre. Lindholm has been very good since being asked to shoulder more of the responsibility; he finished second only to Derek Ryan (58.2%) on the team this season.
Spreading things out
Moving Lindholm to centre has the potential to make Calgary more difficult to match up against. As we saw down the stretch, and especially in the playoffs, the Flames became much easier to defend when their top line was neutralized.
Monahan, Gaudreau, and Lindholm simply weren’t a match for Nathan MacKinnon and company and they couldn’t fight through tighter postseason checking. As a result, Calgary’s superior depth (at least on paper) was never given a chance. While Colorado’s top trio was continually setting up other units for success, Monahan’s line was doing precisely the opposite. It’s a problem and it’s not one that has an easy answer.
Monahan is used as this team’s top centre, but at least at this stage of his career, I don’t think you can call him a true number one compared to the rest of the league. That’s not to disparage Monahan at all; he’s a great player, a perennial 30-goal threat, and remains the most natural fit paired with Gaudreau. However, when it comes to a playoff chess match, I’m not taking him head-to-head with the likes of MacKinnon, Couture, Seguin, and Scheifele over seven games.
As it stands right now, I don’t believe the Flames have a true number one centre. Those guys aren’t easy to come by, however. Knowing that, Calgary’s best and most realistic bet going forward is to make the best of what they have. Part of that is playing to strengths, which is why I propose something that looks like this:
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-?????
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-?????
Andrew Mangiapane-Elias Lindholm-?????
With Backlund and Lindholm, the Flames would have two centres to use in a “heavy minutes” role against top players on the other side. By giving those two the more difficult matchups and heavily slanted defensive starts, it would allow Peters to give Monahan and Gaudreau tons of high ground. Having that line around 65% or higher on offensive starts truly is playing to strength.
It’s something the Canucks did remarkably well during their most recent glory years. Take a look at how head coach Alain Vigneault structured his centres during the 2010-11 season:
Vancouver was the league’s best team by a country mile that year and a big reason was what they got from their group of centermen. With Kesler in elite form taking on the toughest matchups, and Malhotra taking three out of every four defensive draws, the Sedins were able to start almost 75% of their five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone.
While it’s not a perfect comparison, you can see how a structure like that might work for the Flames next season. Instead of seeing a giant chasm like what the Canucks had with Kesler and Malhotra, Calgary could use both Backlund and Lindholm somewhere between 35% and 40% in the offensive zone. If you factor in Ryan, you could have three centres at around 40% while getting Monahan and Gaudreau into the 70s.
Moving Lindholm to the middle leaves the Flames with new questions, but they’re ones that are far less difficult to answer. What would they do with Jankowski? If they’re rolling with Monahan, Backlund, Lindholm, and Ryan at centre, I can see them getting something nice in return for Jankowski in a trade.
Who would fill those spots on the wing? Well, Calgary has Sam Bennett, Dillon Dube, Austin Czarnik, and *gulp* perhaps James Neal as options to fill out those lines. Yes, complete lines are nice to have, but pairings are far more important. The lines I proposed above are just a conversation starter and a way to flesh out how this team might look with Lindholm at centre.
It’s an intriguing option the Flames have on the table going into next year. An early playoff exit doesn’t mean Calgary is in need of a major roster shakeup. What it might mean, though, is a bit of a rethink on what this team’s optimal lineup looks like. Moving Lindholm to the middle opens up a lot of brand new options and it’s something the Flames are rightfully going to give a lot of consideration to this summer.