We are far past the point where Elias Lindholm’s strong play is a surprise or a secret. I am not ready to declare him an NHL superstar yet because he is not. But for a player who has had fits, starts, small bursts but mostly slow development through almost 4 years, his current trend is unmistakably positive.
It is hard to believe, but Elias Lindholm is very clearly an NHL veteran at this point in his career. He is at the tail end of his fourth full season in the NHL and will finish the 2016-17 season with just under 300 games of NHL experience. That ranks him seventh on the current Hurricanes’ roster. But at the same time, Lindholm is still only 23 years old and maybe just beginning to mature as a player with upside yet to be realized.
Elias Lindholm finds a higher gear in the second half of the 2016-17 season
After 3 years of ups and downs and growing pains, Elias Lindholm appears to be turning the corner. When he scores his next point, he will set a career high, reaching 40 points for the first time. More significant is the switch that seemed to flip for him sometime around the midway point of the season. Lindholm tallied only 2 goals and 5 assists in his first 20 games in 2016-17 for a meager 28-point full season pace. In his next 10 games through the end of the 2016 calendar year, he posted a modestly improved 2 goals and 4 assists in 10 games. The math on that is a better 49-point full season pace but still nothing to get too excited about. And that is about when Lindholm was placed on Jordan Staal’s line and seemed to find a higher gear. In 30 games since the calendar flipped to 2017, Lindholm has collected 5 goals and 21 assists for an impressive 71-point full season pace.
But what actually impressed me more than the scoring jump was a seemingly sudden increase in Lindholm’s engagement level, physical play and intensity. He suddenly started to show up at the top of the crease more regularly and then not go away just because an opposing defenseman made it clear he did not want Lindholm to be there. Lindholm suddenly seemed more determined and successful battling for pucks on the boards. And there was even an element of fieriness that has reared its head here and there when physical battles before the whistle slipped onto the other side of the whistle.
Lindholm’s intensity/compete level boost importantly was not the variety that popped up for a shift or 2 out of nowhere such that Tripp Tracy felt obligated to point it out since it was such an anomaly. Rather, the increased intensity level seemed to instantly become a regular part of his game. It is the fact that Lindholm’s higher scoring pace was driven by a logical cause that most makes me optimistic that this is a sustainable change and not just another inevitable random blip destined to happen over a long NHL season.
A new baseline established
We will need to wait for 2017-18 to see what level of scoring is sustainable. Simply taking the best part of Lindholm’s 2016-17 season, ignoring the lesser parts and then projecting that over 82 games for 2017-18 is possible but also more often than not bad math. My hope is that at a minimum, the increased intensity level stays consistently which makes him much more difficult to play against than he was in his first 3 seasons in the NHL. That skill set coupled with even modest scoring similar to how he will finish 2016-17 makes him a serviceable top 9 forward especially on a line whose primary responsibility is that of a checking line. That pairs well with Jordan Staal to build a shutdown line and is a big step up from simply being a young placeholder with upside.
But is much more possible?
But the burning question with Elias Lindholm right now is what a normal scoring pace will be for him going forward. His recent but fairly short duration 70-point pace seems high when considering his first 3 seasons in the NHL and his skill set. But who knows? Could Lindholm be in the process of putting it all together at once instead of a more step-wise progression? That is not impossible.
Core skills and upside
Coming out of the 70-point clouds and returning to the ground, Lindholm clearly does a few things very well. First and maybe most significantly for his 2016-17 scoring is his natural ability to make plays from the side of the net. A fairly high percentage of his power play assists (8 which is tied for the team lead with Skinner, Teravainen and Hanifin) have come from that spot, and even a few points at even strength. He has a natural ability of finding and quickly exploit passing lanes in tight quarters and also deftly receiving and moving the puck in situations where the passes are short and quick and therefore need to be near perfect in terms of where and how hard they arrive. That skill set fills a specific role on the all-important power play.
Lindholm also possesses good hockey sense in terms of positioning and decision-making. Even when he struggled a bit with inconsistency and really quiet stretches in his learning years, he generally got it right in terms of decision-making. That skill fits really well with playing on a checking line with Staal and logging heavy minutes against the other teams’ best lines.
Room for improvement
Even with his strong second half of 2016-17, I see 2 areas for potential improvement going forward. The first is finishing ability. Tripp Tracy loves to rave about Lindholm’s release, but at some point the measure that matters is how often it beats a goalie and finds net. And in that regard, Lindholm is actually having a tough 2016-17 season. He has only 9 goals which is light for his volume of ice time, power play time (even primarily playing a passing role at the side of the net) and decent mix of capable line mates. There is an element of luck to finishing and finding goals, but from watching Lindholm game in and game out, I think there is also an element of him just not capitalizing on enough good chances. Much like how I see Phil Di Giuseppe right now, I think the key for Lindholm might just be the ability to slow things down just a little bit with the puck on his stick in a shooting position such that instead of firing and hoping, he can begin to pick and hit spots more often. The volume of scoring chances is there; I think it is a matter of being more accurate and picking spots a bit better.
The second area for improvement for Lindholm is full-season consistency. We will not know until 2017-18 whether Lindholm’s second half of 2016-17 is the beginning of a new level of play on an every game basis or if it is simply a longer burst of solid play that we have seen from Lindholm in years past. Again, my optimistic hope is that the higher intensity level that is driving Lindholm’s rise is a permanent change, but Lindholm needs to prove that next season, but that needs to be proven not assumed.
Important to note is that the justified raving about Lindholm’s game is not about his season in total. His season in total is not nearly as impressive as his strong finish. The real rise for Lindholm happens if he can play at the level he has played at since the start of 2017 for an entire with shorter and lesser dips when he cools down.
What say you Canes fans?
How confident are you that Elias Lindholm has turned the corner and truly reached a higher level of play that will carry forward into 2017-18 and stretch over an entire season?
What is a reasonable guess for point total for Lindholm for 2017-18? Is his 70-point possible because he is maturing as a player? Or is his average right at 40-ish points still the level that fans should expect from him?
Did others also get the feeling like a switch was suddenly flipped in terms of Lindholm’s intensity level, physical play, etc. Or did it seem more gradual for others?