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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Elias Lindholm proved himself at centre (2021 year in review)

Another season, another solid performance from Elias Lindholm. It seems he takes on whatever form the Flames need him to take on.

The versatile Swede put together another solid campaign tying Johnny Gaudreau for the team lead in goals, playing in all situations, and was an exemplar of mistake-free, consistent hockey for the lion’s share of 2021. Let’s check in with the inaugural recipient of the Harley N. Hotchkiss Award.

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The past

Lindholm spent his formative years with the SHL’s Brynas IF before being selected fifth overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2013.

He made the jump to the NHL almost instantly and suited up in 374 games for the Canes before being traded to Calgary.

After being acquired in a blockbuster trade and inked to a six-year deal, it was not perfectly clear Lindholm would fit in. He promptly cleared that up for everyone, however, as he starting sniping at a rapid pace alongside new linemates Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. The trio would put together a dominant season, all hitting career highs with Lindholm nearly doubling his boxcar stats from the year prior.

2019-20 was full of ups and downs but, through it all, Lindholm again remained a consistently reliable offensive contributor and solicited himself as a building block of this team moving forward. His 29 tallies led the team and had the season not been cut short he would have, surely, hit the 30 goal mark.

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He had a rough go in the bubble playoffs of 2021 but Lindholm’s utility had been proven concretely.

It seemed only one question remained: would he move the centre for good in 2021?

The present

The Flames toyed with utilizing him at centre last season alongside Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane. In 2021 him the club almost exclusively played him down the middle where he, almost by default, claimed the top C slot.

Overall, Lindholm adopted the responsibilities well. There were a few hiccups and the new role required an adjustment period. The coaching staff clearly wanted to implement a Tkachuk, Lindholm pairing as a heavy lifting, play driving top line. While Tkachuk and Lindholm produced promising even-strength results in 2020 with then flank mate Andrew Mangiapane, the newly formed Tkachuk/Lindholm/Dube line struggled to control the share of quality chances. Despite some early success, perhaps partially due to Dube’s injury issues, the trio never really found their footing together. As per Evolving Hockey, the line had the lowest share of 5v5 expected goals amongst forward units who had spent 100 or more minutes together at 46.17%.

There was an early stretch where Lindholm went nine games without an even-strength goal.

Some early road bumps at even strength didn’t keep Lindholm from contributing in other areas. The go-to trigger man on the power play, Lindholm’s six goals and 16 points on the man advantage were second only to Gaudreau. He also led the forward group in shorthanded ice time at just over 127 minutes.

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(Shot Maps from HockeyViz.com)

Darryl Sutter’s decision to reunite Lindholm with Gaudreau on his flank really seemed to get things rolling for Lindholm as the team’s top pivot. Listen, Johnny Gaudreau has some Jeff Winger vibes going on: he has chemistry with almost everybody.

However, Gaudreau and Lindholm are a strong match and have proven to be better together than apart. Over the past three seasons both their underlying and box numbers increase markedly when playing together.

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Gaudreau & Lindholm: Better Together 2018 – 2021 5v5 Corsi For % Goals For % xGoals For % High Danger Chances For %
Elias Lindholm Johnny Gaudreau 53.71 57.06 53.36 52.39
Elias Lindholm w/o Johnny Gaudreau 52.21 48.91 50.16 50.8
Johnny Gaudreau w/o Elias Lindholm 50.63 48.6 51.13 51.05

(Data from Natural Stat Trick)

This iteration of the top line, along with Tkachuk, performed well and generated some nice even-strength results in the latter half of the season.

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 TOI xGF%
Andrew Mangiapane Mikael Backlund Milan Lucic 181.6 61.41
Johnny Gaudreau Elias Lindholm Matthew Tkachuk 165.95 58.68
Andrew Mangiapane Elias Lindholm Matthew Tkachuk 104.2 48.55
Johnny Gaudreau Sean Monahan Brett Ritchie 132.83 47.34
Dillon Dube Elias Lindholm Matthew Tkachuk 255.37 46.17

(Lines with 100+ TOI 5v5. Data from Evolving Hockey)

Lindholm proved he can be just as productive down the middle as on the wing. There are still some questions about his ability to drive play and play head to head against top quality competition at an elite level but there’s no denying he has been incredibly consistent over the last three seasons and has done everything the club has asked him to do.

The future

Lindholm will be entering the fourth year of his six year deal signed back in 2018 (how time flies). His yearly $4.85 million easily provides some of the best bang to buck ratios in the league.

He’s as dependable as they come and not many skaters are playing in all situations, scoring at a 30 goal clip for less than $5 million on an annual basis. The team loves him and for good reason.

There is still the question of if he is the answer as this team’s number one centre. Are the Flames perhaps leaning too heavily on Lindholm? For all his attributes he still hasn’t shown to be an elite, play driving force.

Yet, he’s certainly surpassed Monahan on the depth chart, has more tools in his toolbox than the beleaguered number 23 and is still this team’s best skater down the middle.

Lindholm is smart and skilled enough to be up to the task but it is a tall one. If he can eventually be counted on to play hard minutes in and tilt the ice in those situations and continue to be a goal scoring machine, the Flames may have an answer at centre.

2021 year in review

Milan Lucic | Andrew Mangiapane | Dillon Dube | Derek Ryan | Matthew Tkachuk | Chris Tanev | Jacob Markstrom | Sean Monahan | Mikael Backlund | Juuso Valimaki | Johnny Gaudreau | Mark Giordano | Nikita Nesterov