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It’s time to give Elias Lindholm a run at centre

The Flames are mired in an awful slump. They’ve lost six straight, they can’t score, and worst of all, they’re getting nowhere near enough from their most important, and highest paid, players. Calgary’s coaching staff has been resistant to making significant changes to their forward group, and when they have, they’ve rarely stuck for longer than a game or two.

Case in point: moving Elias Lindholm to centre. The Flames went down that road for two games in late October, with decent success, but quickly reverted back to the familiar look of Lindholm on right wing. I really believe Calgary has something in Lindholm down the middle, for a few different reasons. And isn’t now, with the team struggling mightily, the time to give it another go?

He might be their best centre

While Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund work through significant struggles, the team is without a bona fide number one centre. Derek Ryan has been strong in recent weeks, but he’s still slotted as this team’s number three. The door is wide open for Lindholm to walk through, if given the opportunity.

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I liked what I saw when the Flames gave this a try for a pair of games in October. Lindholm played full-time at centre in the Heritage Classic against Winnipeg and again the next game in Carolina. While Calgary lost both outings, Lindholm scored the only two goals and was effective. His on-ice totals (five-on-five) and individual outputs (overall) are plotted below. Scoring chance data courtesy Natural Stat Trick.

CF% HDCF% iCF iHDCF OZS%
54.9 66.7 7 2 45.0

It’s a small sample size, but that’s solid stuff. In fact, if the Flames could get that from Lindholm at centre consistently, he’d be the best option on the team, no question. It’s not a crazy thought, either! Doesn’t Lindholm possess all the traits that make an effective number one centre these days?

First off, he’s intelligent. Lindholm thinks the game at a high level, at both ends, which gives me confidence he can succeed at centre longterm. On top of that, Lindholm is the only option down the middle that brings any type of physicality or edge, which makes Calgary more difficult to play against. And don’t forget his outside shot, which is as dangerous as any on the team.

It could help Gaudreau and Monahan

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One of the biggest issues facing the Flames right now is how poor Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau have played. Not only are they playing well below expectations, they’re hurting the team on a regular basis. At five-on-five, these two are bleeding scoring chances and spending way too much time chasing their tails defensively.

Player CF% Rank HDCF% Rank OZS%
Johnny Gaudreau 52.3 10th 44.0 17th 58.2
Sean Monahan 50.9 16th 44.8 15th 56.6

So how does moving Lindholm away from Monahan and Gaudreau help things? For me, it comes down to spreading things out, giving head coach Bill Peters more/better matchup options, and thus, being in a position to truly play to the strengths of Monahan and Gaudreau. I first wrote about this in April and I still think it holds true 25 games into a new season.

Monahan and Gaudreau are offensive players, despite the former making a concerted effort to refine his all-around game. Neither player is known for their 200-foot game, so why not put them in a spot where they can succeed most? Feed Gaudreau and Monahan offensive zone starts against lesser opposition and let them eat.

One of the ways Calgary can make that happen is by moving Lindholm to centre. How about this for a trio of forward pairs:

Tkachuk-Lindholm
Gaudreau-Monahan

Backlund-Frolik

With Lindholm as the team’s top centre, the Flames can use him and Tkachuk head-to-head against any opposing top line, regardless of zone or scenario. With Backlund and Frolik, Calgary has an established shutdown duo they can deploy in a heavily defensively slanted role against top six opposition.

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If a line centred by Lindholm is at ~50% for offensive zone starts with Backlund and Frolik at ~30%, the door is wide open for Monahan and Gaudreau. If the Flames could roll those two out ~70% of the time for offensive faceoffs, against middle six opposition, doesn’t that sound like a good way to get the most out of them?

Why not?

This is the question I’m having a tough time answering. Does Peters prefer loading things up at the top of the depth chart as opposed to a more spread out approach? Is Lindholm resistant to spending time down the middle? From the outside, moving Lindholm to centre seems like an option with the potential to pay off huge, both this season and down the road.

Calgary is struggling in a big way, they’re not scoring, and they need significantly more from their top forwards. Shifting Lindholm to the middle addresses all of that and a small sample size suggests it has the chance of being successful. If it doesn’t work, can it really be worse than what we’ve seen of late?