Recent deals for top centres create new contract landscape for UFA-to-be Elias Lindholm
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Gould14 days ago
By now, pretty much everyone in this city knows how important Elias Lindholm is to the success of the Calgary Flames.
Since Lindholm arrived from the Carolina Hurricanes back in 2018, we’ve watched him grow from a gun-slinging winger to the dominant two-way centre he projected to be in his draft year.
Even in the midst of a disappointing season for these Flames, Lindholm has continued to do what he does best. He won’t score 40 goals again this year, but he’s up at 19 goals and 55 points through 65 games while generally influencing play in positive ways at both ends of the ice.
Lindholm has been one of the National Hockey League’s best value players since the moment he exploded onto the scene in Calgary nearly five years ago. His $4.85 million cap hit is a laughable bargain for what he provides.
Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, two-thirds of Calgary’s elite former top line, became free agents in the summer of 2022. We all know how that went. And we’re less than 18 months away from Lindholm, the final member of that unit, becoming eligible to test the open market.
The Flames will probably miss the playoffs this season, but there’s nothing stopping them from running it back next year with a similar group of guys. It’s not as though they’ll be able to do much to offload Jonathan Huberdeau’s contract, and it looks like Nazem Kadri, MacKenzie Weegar, and Jacob Markstrom are here to stay. What else are they going to do? They’re kind of locked onto this flightpath.
That’s where Lindholm comes in. If the Flames are committed to these guys — they probably won’t be able to move their contracts for another few years, regardless — they pretty much have to do what they can to re-sign their No. 1 centre. Trading Lindholm would probably bring a ton of assets into the organization, but what is this team going to do with them? Rebuild? Not bloody likely.
Lindholm is one of seven key players — Tyler Toffoli, Noah Hanifin, Mikael Backlund, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, and Oliver Kylington being the others — set to hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2024. Backlund and Lindholm are probably the least expendable of that group, and Lindholm is the younger of the two by five-and-a-half years.
The Flames’ cap structure is not particularly forgiving. The salary cap ceiling looks to be in stasis for the next little bit and the Flames have a ton of money tied up in long-term contracts. Even if Backlund takes a pay cut from his current $5.35 million salary, the Flames will need to be somewhat careful when mapping out Lindholm’s next deal.
A lot can change between now and 2024, although there’s nothing preventing Lindholm and the Flames from hammering out a contract extension as soon as July 1, 2023. Here’s a look at some of the most notable long-term deals handed out to centres in Lindholm’s ballpark since the start of the 2021–22 season:
|Player||Team||Contract length||Annual cap hit||Percentage of salary cap||Age in first year of deal||Signing date|
|Dylan Larkin||Detroit||Eight years||$8.7 million||10.55||27||Mar. 1, 2023|
|Bo Horvat||NY Islanders||Eight years||$8.5 million||10.30||28||Feb. 5, 2023|
|Roope Hintz||Dallas||Eight years||$8.45 million||10.24||27||Nov. 29, 2022|
|Nazem Kadri||Calgary||Seven years||$7 million||8.48||32||Aug. 18, 2022|
|Tomas Hertl||San Jose||Eight years||$8.14 million||9.98||29||Mar. 16, 2022|
|Mika Zibanejad||NY Rangers||Eight years||$8.5 million||10.43||29||Oct. 10, 2021|
The through-line here is pretty apparent: Lindholm will, in all likelihood, need to be handed at least $8 million per year (and probably a decent amount more) to re-sign with the Flames. Aside from Kadri, who was in a unique position as an older UFA with few potential suitors, everyone on that list will make more than $8 million for the foreseeable future.
But Lindholm also has two things that separate him from the pack: a Frank J. Selke Trophy finalist finish and a 40-goal season. The fact both came in the same year (2021–22) might slightly hurt his case but he’s proven himself capable of excelling relative to the rest of the league in high-leverage situations.
Zibanejad is the only other player on that list with a 40-goal season, although Horvat might reach that plateau this year. Lindholm has typically hovered between 20–29 goals since joining the Flames, but we know he has the ability to explode beyond that range with the right linemates. This year, he hasn’t really had them.
There’s a pretty clear (and narrow) range of outcomes for a Lindholm contract. Anything below $8 million would be a steal; anything above $9 million would look like an overpay. Expect all the typical fixings in terms of trade and movement protection, too. But none of this addresses how, exactly, the Flames would make room.
By the time Lindholm’s new deal would take effect, the Flames will have been relieved of their existing commitments to Mikael Backlund, Tyler Toffoli, Dillon Dube, Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, and Oliver Kylington. (Milan Lucic and Nick Ritchie, too.)
Sounds great, right? Well, except you can’t exactly win much without bringing back (or replacing) those defencemen — and good luck finding other players who can do what Backlund and Toffoli do for this Flames team. Dube will probably need a raise if he’s still in Calgary. And here’s the real wild card: Jakob Pelletier will be a restricted free agent coming out of his entry-level deal.
There will be plenty of hurdles to jump when the time comes. In all likelihood, the Flames have already begun to plan what exactly they’ll do to entice Lindholm to stay for the long haul. They certainly can’t afford to lose another big-ticket forward for nothing if they aspire to contend.
Go ahead and earmark $8.5 million-ish for Lindholm under the Flames’ salary cap ceiling between 2024 and 2032. But good luck trying to project the moves they’ll make between now and then to make room — and to shake off the funk of this underwhelming season.
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