Just under a month into the Calgary Flames’ 2023 offseason, it’s already been a wild ride. With the team already looking for a new general manager and coach, there’s still plenty of tough questions to come this offseason. One of those questions will be the future of the team’s current top line centre in Elias Lindholm. After a career year in 2021–22, Lindholm took a step back this year without his running mates in Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk.
With his contract set to expire next offseason and his intentions far from confirmed, could the best path forward for the Flames be to explore trading Lindholm while they still can? Let’s take a look at whether or not that’s something the Flames could, or should do.
Lindholm has been non-committal on re-signing in Calgary
Once thought of as an untouchable on the Flames roster, Lindholm’s name first popped up in trade rumours back in March during the trade deadline. These were obviously very rough rumours, or better yet pure speculation. Not much was thought of them until the season had ended, and Lindholm provided a less than ideal response when asked about his future in Calgary. His below comments immediately kicked off speculation that he may not have a long-term future in Calgary.
Given Lindholm’s contract status, it’s not exactly reassuring to hear him be so non-committal about his future in Calgary. That said, these comments were of course made while Darryl Sutter is still the team’s head coach, which is not longer the case. With Sutter now out of the picture, it’s fair to say that the chances Lindholm wants to stick around are much higher.
Here’s what Elliotte Friedman had to say about Lindholm’s future now that Sutter is gone.
“It’s probably a bit too soon to know… I think with Lindholm it was very clear at the end of last year he was unhappy. I think this is someone who needed to decompress a little bit.”Elliotte Friedman on Lindholm’s future in Calgary
Based on Friedman’s quote about Lindholm, it essentially reaffirms what Lindholm made clear at his end-of-year presser. At this time he hasn’t made a full decision on whether or not he would like to stick around in Calgary, even after Sutter was fired. That’s not exactly great news if you’re the Flames, although it is still very early in the offseason and totally understandable that he needs some more time.
In an even more doom and gloom type of statement, fan-favourite Eric Francis had this to say about Lindholm’s future.
“I don’t see how there’s any chance that the Flames would be able to produce any sort of number that would make [Lindholm] want to jump on [a contract offer] right now. I don’t think it’s possible for Lindholm to be signed [this offseason]. No chance under any scenario.”Eric Francis on Lindholm’s contract status and future in Calgary
Tell us how you really feel, Eric. Now of course this quote should be taken with a grain of salt as it’s more so Francis’ assumption of the situation versus actual things he’s hearing. That said he’s obviously very connected in the organization so there’s probably at least some truth to the statement which we’ll touch on in a bit.
The Flames need an answer this offseason
Any Flames fan will shudder at the thought of a star player becoming an upcoming free agent in a year. Given Lindholm’s non-committal answer at the end of the season and everything we’ve heard from the media, it certainly sounds like he’s strongly considering waiting until next summer to discuss a new contract. That is to say, he’s clearly not locked into staying and re-upping in Calgary.
Given that information, it’s clear the Flames run the risk of losing Lindholm for nothing if they let him go into next season without a new contract. We all of course have a perfect example of that scenario with Gaudreau just last year. The organization cannot go into next year without at least some idea into Lindholm’s intentions. Their number one priority after hiring a new GM and head coach is determining Lindholm’s future in the organization.
At some point this offseason they need to go to Lindholm’s camp and get an idea of where he’s at and what he’s looking to do going forward. If there is even any inclination at all that he may want to wait and explore his options next offseason, you need to seriously consider moving him this offseason. As an organization the last thing you need right now is to lose a player of Lindholm’s calibre for nothing.
What are the Flames’ options?
So what are the Flames’ options with Lindholm going forward if he is unwilling to talk about an extension this offseason? You have two clear paths forward.
Trade him this offseason
The most obvious option if he’s unwilling to sign a new deal this year is to trade Lindholm this offseason, likely around the draft. Although Francis likes to report on the negative side of things, he does have a good point regarding Lindholm not wanting to sign this offseason. He’s coming off his lowest point per game pace since 2019–20, and his lowest goal scoring pace since 2017–18.
It’s just basic knowledge that a player is unlikely to commit to signing long-term after a down year. With a year left on his contract and with Sutter no longer in the picture, it makes a ton of sense for Lindholm to bet on himself this coming season and cash in next summer. If he is set on waiting to see how things go in 2023–24, the Flames would be wise to explore trade options this summer unless he explicably states he wants to remain in Calgary. You simply cannot get to a point where Lindholm leaves for nothing, and letting him go unsigned into the season is the first step towards that.
Lindholm’s value is likely at the highest it will be right now as he still has one more year under contract. Compared to the trade deadline where there are limited suitors for a high profile star like Lindholm, in the offseason teams have much more flexibility to make trades. Putting Lindholm on the market now would no doubt expand the list of potential suitors, thus increasing the potential return.
Reassess the situation at the 2024 deadline
Another option for the Flames is to hold onto Lindholm into the season regardless of his contract status. This scenario seems the most likely, as the Flames are built to win right now and trading their top line centre before seeing how this core can do under a new coach could be a big mistake. That said this option carries some pretty big risk, as we saw last year with Gaudreau.
There’s two outcomes here. Either the Flames struggle again next season and look to perform a major retool/rebuild starting at the 2024 deadline, or they bounce back and are locked into a playoff spot. If the team struggles again next year, it would be incredibly shortsighted not to move Lindholm at the deadline. At that point it makes little sense to commit long-term to another soon to be 30-year-old. Although you would still get a very nice return for him as a rental, it wouldn’t be as much as you’d get for him right now while he still has a year remaining on his deal.
In the second outcome the Flames bounce back and are once again challenging for a top spot in the Pacific Division. This leaves you in the exact same scenario you were with Gaudreau in 2021–22, which isn’t exactly a great spot when it comes to asset management. If you’re sitting in a playoff spot, you’re obviously not trading your top line centre. This leaves you completely exposed going into the offseason and open to Lindholm walking for nothing. That would be an absolute disaster for the Flames. Anything short of winning the Stanley Cup would not make up for Lindholm leaving for free.
So what could a potential deal look like? Let’s take a look.
Lindholm’s trade value
There’s no doubt that Lindholm could fetch a massive return for the Flames. Very rarely do players of his calibre become available on the trade market. As a 28-year-old centre in his prime, signed for one more year for a bargain AAV, and a year removed from a 40-goal, Selke candidate season, there would be a huge list of teams lining up to acquire him. Here’s where Lindholm ranks among all centre’s since coming to Calgary in 2018-19.
|Stat||Elias Lindholm||League rank among centres|
Points obviously aren’t everything, but Lindholm ranks very nicely here. He’s at the top of the league for goals, points and even strength points among all centres in the NHL since he joined the Flames in 2018–19. Even though he’s not a playmaker, his assist total ranks a respectable 20th. All said, considering there are technically 32 first line centres across the NHL, Lindholm is looking pretty solid here.
Not often does a top-15 scoring centre in the NHL become available on the trade market. Lindholm would be a sure fire top line centre for most teams in the league, or an overqualified second line centre on a small number of teams. All that is to say his value across the league would be sky high on the trade market considering he plays the NHL’s most important position.
How about his underlying numbers? Let’s take a look at where he lands. All numbers are 5v5, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com. Only centres with at least 4,000 minutes since 2018–19 were considered.
|Stat||Elias Lindholm||League rank among centres|
Once again, Lindholm comes out looking incredibly strong here. His underlying numbers are right on track with his point totals at the top of the league among centres since coming to Calgary. He’s right in that range of a top-15 centre in the NHL. He’s never been known as an elite play driver, but his underlying metrics certainly portray a centre who can generate shots and chances at a very good rate.
Are Lindholm’s defensive impacts overstated?
Here’s the caveat with Lindholm that I think could benefit the Flames. Despite having the reputation as an elite two-way centre, Lindholm’s defensive impact has always been just good, and certainly not elite. That may be hard to believe considering he finished as the runner up for the Selke last season, but that just further shows how much his reputation exceeds his actual impact.
Take a look at his RAPM (regularized adjusted plus-minus) from the past three seasons.
Despite his reputation, Lindholm has been far from an elite player defensively. His xGA/60 and CA/60 are nowhere close to the level you’d come to expect from an elite two-way centre. Further to the above point, Dom Luszczyszyn at the Athletic had Lindholm’s defensive impact in the 56th percentile this season, which is barely above-average—far from an elite status. For reference, he had Mikael Backlund in the 95th percentile.
Evolving-Hockey has Lindholm’s EVD (even strength defence goals above replacement) at just 0.7 over the past three seasons. That number actually ranks sixth among current Flames forwards with at least 2,500 minutes over that span.
Overall, Lindholm has the point totals and underlying numbers to make him a clear cut top-15 centre in the NHL. That said, despite his reputation he isn’t the elite two-way centre most make him out to be. That’s actually good news for the Flames though, as Lindholm’s supposed value is likely higher than his actual value on the ice.
What could a potential return look like?
Now if it did get to the point that the Flames are seriously looking to move Lindholm, they’d need to get a massive return to make it worth it. As we’ve mentioned already, very rarely does a player of his calibre and reputation become available on the trade market. The most similar recent example that comes to mind is the Bo Horvat trade from this past season.
At the time of the deal, Horvat was 27 years old and in the midst of a career year with 31 goals and 54 points in 49 games. He also has the reputation of being a strong two-way centre even if he isn’t one, much like Lindholm. In return for Horvat, the Canucks received a middle-six forward in Anthony Beauvillier, a B+ prospect in Aatu Raty, as well as a first-round pick.
If you’re the Flames, you should be looking to get more than that for two main reasons. First off, at the time of the trade Horvat was in the final year of his contract and an upcoming free agent. In essence he was acquired as a rental by the Islanders for the last couple months of the season. If the Flames were to trade Lindholm this offseason, the acquiring team would get him for a full season before he becomes a free agent.
Secondly, Lindholm is simply a much better player than Horvat. Before the 2022–23 season, Horvat’s career high was 27 goals and 61 points all the way back in 2018–19. Lindholm has topped that pace in four of his five seasons in Calgary. Horvat’s underlying numbers are also well below Lindholm, with his cumulative CF% and xGF% both coming in under 50% since 2018–19.
A deal centered around a first-round pick, a top-six forward who is ideally a centre, and a top prospect should be the bare minimum in any return for Lindholm. For example, the Carolina Hurricanes have been a name mentioned as a potential suitor for Lindholm. If you were able to grab Seth Jarvis along with draft picks and prospects, you’re looking pretty good.
A decision is needed sooner than later
Is trading Lindholm something the Flames must do this offseason? Absolutely not. However if the team doesn’t get a clear idea on what his future plans are going into next summer, it may make the most sense to consider moving him now while you still can. The last thing the Flames need is a valuable asset like Lindholm leaving for free. If to comes to it and he’s unwilling to sign, trading Lindholm could kickstart a retool in Calgary.