Calgary Flames

Could an Elias Lindholm for Kent Johnson swap make sense for both sides?

Despite their win over the Seattle Kraken this past weekend, the Calgary Flames still have a long way to go before we start talking about them as a serious playoff contender. Sitting 30th in the NHL and with a tough November schedule on the horizon, things could very well keep going south over the next couple of weeks. If they do, it’s nearly a guarantee the Flames fully commit to a retool/rebuild and shakeup of the current roster.

If it gets to that point, the first name on everyone’s trade list will be Elias Lindholm. The 28-year-old top line centre is a pending unrestricted free agent and if the Flames do decide to retool, Lindholm will surely be moved before the trade deadline. One idea that has recently circulated is making a blockbuster deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets for top young talent Kent Johnson. So could a Johnson for Lindholm swap make sense for both sides? Let’s take a look.

Who is Kent Johnson?

First off, who is Johnson and why is he finding himself in trade rumours? Johnson is a supremely talented offensive centre/winger listed at 6’1″ and 178 pounds and was picked by the Columbus Blue Jackets fifth overall in the 2021 NHL Draft. He also just turned 21 last month. Here’s what The Athletic said about Johnson leading up to the 2021 draft.

“Johnson is the player you want to know about in this year’s draft in terms of dynamic skill and playmaking ability. A lot of his puck touches look unique from other players on the ice, with the ability to make between-the-legs and behind-the-back plays look routine. He’s a very creative playmaker who can make difficult plays in small areas consistently… Johnson projects as a top-line NHL forward, likely on the wing, who has the most star potential in the draft.”

The Athletic on Kent Johnson prior to the 2021 NHL Draft

Star potential? You don’t hear that very often in Calgary. After being drafted fifth overall by the Blue Jackets in 2021, Johnson spent the year in the NCAA where he posted 37 points in 32 games in his D+1 season before making the jump to the NHL in the same year.

He made his full season NHL debut last year in 2022–23 where he posted an impressive 16 goals and 40 points in 76 games on a dreadful Blue Jackets roster. Unfortunately, he’s had a roller coaster start to his sophomore season in Columbus. Across the team’s first 10 games of the season, Johnson was scratched twice and benched for nearly an entire game at one point. Even when he played he posted just three points in eight games and only averaged 12:43 minutes a night, a sizeable decrease from his rookie season.

To make matters worse, the Blue Jackets made the surprising decision to send the fifth overall pick down to the AHL last week. In two AHL games, he’s posted three points. Given how quickly he’s fallen out of favour in Columbus, there have been rumours that he may be available sooner than later.

Why a swap makes sense for Calgary

First off we’ll look at why a Johnson for Lindholm swap makes sense for Calgary. Johnson is obviously much younger than Lindholm—eight years to be exact. If the Flames are looking to rebuild, getting younger is key and this swap would do that in a big way. Secondly, Lindholm is a pending UFA and any extension would likely be eight years and take him into his later 30s. Not exactly a great idea for a team that’s closer to rebuilding than contending.

Johnson meanwhile will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season with no arbitration rights. In other words, the Flames will have full team control. That’s a big win for a Calgary team who hasn’t exactly had a lot of luck keeping high-end talent in town.

Now in terms of the on-ice factor, it would again be a big win for Calgary. As mentioned above Johnson is an elite offensive talent, and would immediately become the most dynamic player in the entire organization. There’s a reason he was drafted fifth overall and posted 40 points in his rookie year. Johnson has all the makings of a high-end top line winger in the NHL if he can put everything together. That’s the type of player you can build your future around and one that the Flames simply don’t have in their organization right now.

We all know the Flames roster is completely devoid of high-end talent, and Johnson is the type of young player you’d typically only be able to add through the draft. If they could add him through a trade, specifically one where a pending UFA goes the other way, it would make a ton of sense. He would become a centrepiece of any rebuild in Calgary given his age and potential.

Lastly, Johnson is just flat-out exciting to watch, something the Calgary Flames are not right now. I can’t picture any player on the current roster pulling off something like this. Adding Johnson would add a ton of excitement to a team in desperate need of a boost.

Why a swap makes sense for Columbus

The Blue Jackets are at a crossroads right now. They’re stuck between a rebuilding team and a team trying to win right now. After signing Johnny Gaudreau to a massive deal in free agency last offseason, the Blue Jackets proceeded to finish 31st in the NHL. They then went out and made two big moves for a pair of veteran defencemen this past summer in an attempt to fast-track their rebuild. Despite the moves, they’re currently sitting 24th in the NHL.

The day the Blue Jackets signed Gaudreau, it completely altered their timeline and the team is now facing a dilemma where they need to figure things out if they want to take advantage of Gaudreau’s contract before he gets into his mid-30s. They can’t sit around for years and wait for their young talent to be ready. That’s why swapping a young developing player like Johnson for an established top line veteran in Lindholm could make a lot of sense. Add in the fact that Lindholm has had great success beside Gaudreau and it makes the potential move even more enticing.

As well Columbus is incredibly thin down the middle, even after drafting elite prospect Adam Fantilli third overall this past summer. You can only trot out Boone Jenner in your top-six for so long. Adding a player like Lindholm would immediately boost the Blue Jackets’ centre depth and give them the perfect centre pairing with Gaudreau on the top line.

Here’s where Lindholm ranks league-wide for goals, assists, and points over the last three seasons compared to the Blue Jackets’ highest-scoring centre over that same time span. The Blue Jackets don’t have any centres in their organization anywhere close to that type of production.

PlayerGoalsLeague rank among centres (2020-2023)AssistsLeague rank among centres (2020-2023)PointsLeague rank among centres (2020-2023)
Elias Lindholm8517th11617th20118th
Jack Roslovic4759th8250th12953rd

You get the point. The Blue Jackets have really struggled down the centre of the ice over the past few years and don’t have anyone who is capable of producing the way Lindholm is right now. He’d present a giant upgrade at centre.

It’s not like they’d have any issues opening up the chequebook and re-signing him long-term either given they’ll have around $39 million in cap space to work with next season. If the Blue Jackets are serious about contending right now before Gaudreau gets too old, adding a player like Lindholm who fits their needs and has a history with Gaudreau makes a whole lot of sense.

Why a swap doesn’t make sense for Calgary

Honestly, there aren’t a whole lot of negatives to this swap for Calgary but it’s certainly not a surefire homerun. The main drawback of making this type of deal is the fact that you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. Lindholm is arguably the Flames’ most valuable asset right now. Simply put, the team needs to nail the return for Lindholm if they want to make sure their rebuild doesn’t extend multiple years.

Swapping Lindholm directly one-for-one for Johnson would certainly be a risky move considering we still don’t know exactly what type of NHL player Johnson is. The sample size is just so small that making him the only piece coming back for Lindholm could potentially come back to bite the Flames. Yes, there’s oodles of potential there, but he also has just 96 NHL games under his belt and he wasn’t just sent to the AHL for no reason. He still has a long way to go before he’s a consistent impact NHL player.

Obviously playing for such a horrendous Blue Jackets team last season doesn’t help, but Johnson is still very much a work in progress. Check out his RAPM from his rookie season in 2022–23.

Perhaps the Flames would prefer to move Lindholm in a deal where multiple pieces are coming back, therefore leaving them more room for success in return. If the Flames were able to get back say a first-round pick, top prospect, and young roster player, it may be more beneficial in the long run and give the team more assets to build their future around versus relying completely on Johnson figuring things out.

Why a swap doesn’t make sense for Columbus

As we mentioned above, the Blue Jackets are in a really weird spot right now. On the surface, it certainly seems like they’re trying to be competitive right now during the early years of Gaudreau’s contract, but that doesn’t mean they’ll want to sacrifice the future to win right now. Lindholm is a solid centre, but he’s also on the verge of turning 29 years old and isn’t elite by any means. Even with him in the mix, the Blue Jackets may still be a long way off from making the playoffs.

Yes, you want to capitalize on Gaudreau’s age before it’s too late, but that doesn’t mean they’ll want to mortgage the future to try to make things fit right now. It’s not like the Blue Jackets are a single piece away. They’re still a long way away from being considered a playoff team, let alone a Cup contender. It may make more sense in Columbus to stay the course with the rebuild and continue to rack up young talent and stock the cupboards for the future.

Lindholm is also quite overrated around the league due to his big 2021–22 season which looks like more of an outlier than the standard at this point. While Johnson is a work in progress, but his ceiling is much higher than what Lindholm currently offers. Here are Lindholm’s results from the last three seasons combined.

He’s a solid but not elite centre who really doesn’t move the needle much at either end. He’s also a year away from entering his 30s. Will Columbus really want to rely on a 29-year-old Lindholm and 30-year-old Gaudreau to rekindle their magic and guide them back to the playoffs? It’s certainly a risky bet and perhaps not worth trading such a valuable young asset like Johnson.

The trade is one-for-one

Although it’s just fan rumours at this point, a Lindholm for Johnson swap may be a great move for two teams trying to move in opposite directions. The Blue Jackets will finally get a veteran number-one centre to play with Gaudreau while the Flames would add a dynamic young talent to an organization starved for elite skill. That said, it’s certainly not a perfect fit for either team and there may be some negatives from both sides to making such a risky one-for-one deal. Regardless, it would certainly bring some much-needed excitement to Calgary at such a dark time.

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