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Moving Elias Lindholm to centre opens up all kinds of options

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.

Season CF% HDCF% OZS%
2018-19 55.5 54.6 55.9
2017-18 53.3 50.6 56.9
2016-17 52.2 51.7 50.2
2015-16 53.5 53.3 54.2
2014-15 53.4 48.4 56.6

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.

Season FOW FOL FO%
2018-19 509 428 54.3
2017-18 432 361 54.5

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:

Centre OZS% CF%
Henrik Sedin 71.7 55.6
Ryan Kesler 49.3 57.2
Manny Malhotra 24.1 45.1

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.

Conclusion

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.

  • _vntony

    Gotta really commend Pat for the write-up.
    I think you’re one of the only few media members who follow the Flames daily and can boldly proclaim that Monahan isn’t a true #1C. That takes some guts.
    I know a lot of us here have said it only to have other fans just jump down our throats.
    You follow this team on the daily so maybe people will believe you when you say he’s not a true #1C in this league.

    • _vntony

      Not sure why the trashes. I mean last time I checked, Pat Steinberg is on the sportsnet payroll, part of the media round up at the Saddledome, talks to; coaches, players, staff more than any of us do…
      watches every single practice/game. Paid to break down each game. Seems to me like he’s more of an expert than many of us here…
      Trash away, but I would believe his assessment of Monahan being a #1C or not over the opinions of some armchair GMs here.

    • Justthateasy

      It’s painfully obvious that Monahan is not even close to a number one Center. He’s poor defensively. His release is slow. And most importantly, he is soft. Facts is facts.

    • Kevin R

      One thing to remember is that these guys like each other & like playing together, especially Monahan & Gaudreau. I know they are not above the team but cant ignore the dressing room factor & the fact that these 3 had their best season ever together & despite the playoff flop, deserve another year together. BP will just have to adjust accordingly rather than give them the slack he did after they vanished after the All-Star break.

  • SgtRoadBlock

    poor Janko being trash here and only on his 2nd year as a pro under a Coach that could not get the Canes into the playoffs,

    Sean and Backland need to be fix waaaay before dealing with 3rd or 4th line centers being fix

    • Kevin R

      I think if you bring Kadri in you in effect fix the Backlund Monahan lines. Kadri centring Gaudreau & Lindholm could be intriguing. Monahan centring Tkachuk & try Benny on the RW, he played good there when BP moved him up with Johnny & Monny in last playoff game, except leave him there for awhile & let Benny play with some talent for awhile.
      Backlund down the 3rd line & build around him with the likes of Magpie or Dube & Czarnik.

      Brodie & Janko for Kadri & 2nd rounder is an interesting scenario & not unreasonable.

      • _vntony

        If Kadri somehow comes into the fold, I would love to see a Tkachuk – Kadri – Benny line.
        How much havoc would that cause for opposing defenders. Tkachuk in front of the net, while Bennett a Kadri crush defenders and win board battles.

        Gaudreau – Lindholm – New top 6/Monahan
        Tkachuk – Kadri – Bennett
        Mangiapane – Backlund – Frolik/Monahan

  • BlueMoonNigel

    From the All-Star break to Game 5 of the ill-fated series against the Avs, Johnny and Mony sucked! Peters continuing to play them as a unit is one of the reasons the Flames and Oilers are having their annual spring golf tourney.

    Maybe it is time to cleave Johnny and Mony. The thought of trading either is quite fascinating to ponder, but I don’t believe it is at all realistic at this time.

  • Soupy19

    Fascinating article Pat. Thank you for this. I’d really be on board with a move like this especially if the Flames acquire another top 6 forward which seems to be in the plans (Zucker?).

    • Korcan

      With Toronto bowing out early again (and Kadri looking like a goat) and needing to upgrade their d and free up some cash, and with Calgary needing better center depth and more grit, i wonder if these two might be potential trade partners. Maybe something like a Brodie/Jankowski to TO for Kadri/(Pick? Prospect).

      Kadri would be an upgrade over Jankowski and even though i like the idea of Brodie’s versatility on the 3rd pairing on the blue line, if he could get Calgery a center like Kadri it would be worth trading.

      Jankowski would fit Toronto’s cap and fit in nicely at 3C. Kadri could give Peters even more options at center:

      Another thing i wonder is if Monahan could play on the RW. This would make him much less a liability in the d-zone and he takes all his feeds from the left already (via Gaudreau), so it may not be that much of a stretch for him to make the transition.

      Consider:
      Gaudreau-Lindholm-Monahan
      Tkachuck-Kadri-Bennett/Neal
      Mangiapane-Backlund-Frolik/Bennett
      Dube-Ryan-Hathaway