I have long been interested in the prospect of moving Elias Lindholm to centre for a decent stretch of games. Well, that stretch might be upon us. Lindholm played down the middle from start to finish in Saturday’s Heritage Classic in Regina and that trend will continue Tuesday in Carolina, at least to start. It’s a significant shift for Calgary and it opens the door to an important trio of questions.
How long will he stay there?
Lindholm joined us from the Flames’ golf tournament to kick off training camp and we asked him about potentially moving to centre. His answer was interesting. To paraphrase, Lindholm said he has no problem playing down the middle, but doesn’t want to do it for a game or two and then move back to the wing. If Calgary is going to move him to centre, Lindholm would prefer it be for an extended period of time.
That sentiment has been expressed to Bill Peters, too. The head coach has mentioned Lindholm’s aversion to short term, spot duty work at centre and seems to understand the reasoning. As such, I can’t imagine Peters decided to dramatically juggle up his lines for Saturday’s game on a whim.
I thought Lindholm played well down the middle against the Jets. He scored the team’s only goal (albeit on the powerplay), was positive in possession and scoring chances, and his line with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk was Calgary’s most dangerous all night. Maybe this move is very temporary, but everything we’ve heard suggests the team is thinking of keeping Lindholm in the middle for more than a cup of coffee.
Who will he play with?
I wasn’t overly surprised when Lindholm was moved to centre. I was, however, surprised with what players he was between when the Flames first showed this look Friday night. I’ve always just assumed moving Lindholm off the top line would keep Gaudreau and Sean Monahan together as a pairing. That’s not how Calgary was thinking.
That’s how the Flames deployed at forward Saturday, with both the Lindholm and Backlund lines having solid evenings. And, despite being caught a little off guard by Peters’s decision to split Monahan and Gaudreau apart, moving Lindholm to centre still accomplished one thing: creating a more difficult group to match up against.
The biggest reasons I’ve been a proponent of trying Lindholm down the middle is to give the team more matchup options in the absence of a true “number one” centre. The groupings above are interesting, but there are a lot of other options, too.
Calgary could experiment with different forward pairings to find out exactly what works best. Something like Gaudreau-Monahan, Tkachuk-Lindholm, Backlund-Frolik has always intrigued me, for instance. It gives the Flames three solid forward duos with the ability to plug wingers in around the core foundation. That’s only one idea, but it gives you a sense of the doors opened up by shifting Lindholm off the wing.
Is this best for the Flames?
This is the most important question, but also the most difficult to answer. Since Gaudreau and Monahan started playing together regularly in 2014-15, no one has been a better fit on their right side than Lindholm. That’s no disrespect to Jiri Hudler or Micheal Ferland, but they truly fall well short compared to Lindholm.
Lindholm’s perfect fit made Peters hesitant to move him off that line last year, even when things started to slow down following the All Star break. With Lindholm on the right side, the Flames could deploy a line with Gaudreau and Monahan on it much more confidently without feeling the need to shelter or protect.
Peters and his coaching staff has a default setting to revert to; Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindholm is easy to go back to if nothing else works better. It’s a dangerous weapon to have holstered, but it’s also a line that couldn’t get the job done when it mattered most last season. That’s one of the big reasons why the coaching staff has had interest in exploring something different going back to training camp.
A lot of this rests on Monahan, who has looked like an improved all-around player early this season. Can he drive a line without Gaudreau on his left flank? The prior, but limited, evidence we’ve seen suggests no, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still happen. If a perennial 30-goal threat like Monahan flounders without Gaudreau, moving those two back together with Lindholm on the right side is probably the best bet.
But what if he doesn’t? And what if Gaudreau-Lindholm-Tkachuk turns into a high-end line like the talent suggests it could? Time will tell, but I’m quite interested to find out.