An important starting point for any discussion about Elias Lindholm’s progress, potential and future is his age. Despite being in his fourth season in the NHL, Elias Lindholm is still only 21 years old. If he chose a career that required 4-year college degree, he would still be in his fourth year of school and not even started working yet. The NHL is a young man’s game with many stars in their early 20’s so that is not an apples to apples comparison, but the point that he is still incredibly young still holds.
2013 NHL draft: Initial expectations
Elias Lindholm was selected fifth overall in a deep draft in 2012. Scouts and analysts had him in the second tier of players who were capable of being difference-makers and even superstars. Hurricanes fans drooled over comparisons to fellow Swede Peter Forsberg. And when then Hurricanes general manager more or less declared him an NHL roster player in June before he even arrived in Raleigh, expectations grew even further.
Summer 2013: A summer of setbacks
Lindholm first arrived in Raleigh for the summer prospects camp shortly after he was drafted. Shortly into the camp, Lindholm took a big but seemingly harmless shoulder from Brendan Woods in a drill and was sidelined for the remainder of the prospects camp. The injury was not deemed to be serious but seemed to linger. He did not play in the Traverse City tourney with the other Hurricanes prospects and was even slowed at the beginning of the NHL training camp which started more than 2 months later. When Lindholm was again injured in preseason action, the murmur about whether jumping straight to the NHL was the right thing grew. But the plan had already been written months earlier and for better or worse the Hurricanes pushed forward with the original plan to play Lindholm at the NHL level as an 18-year old for the 2013-14 season.
2013-14 season: A slow start but reasonably growth toward the end of season
Probably not surprisingly, Lindholm’s rookie year started modestly. Coming off a disjointed summer with an injury setback and then another interruption during training camp, it took some time for Lindholm to settle into the NHL. Lindholm had a goal and an assist in 7 games in October of 2013 and then only a lone goal in November. At the start of the season, Lindholm was clearly more in the category of ‘trying to grow into it’ than ‘definitely ready.’ But he did seem to find a higher gear late in the season and finished with 5 goals and 4 assists in March and April (22 games) and started to look more comfortable in the NHL game. He finished his rookie season with a modest 21 points in 58 games. Though the season featured as much growing pain as growth, Lindholm exited the season on an upswing which boosted optimism that he was on the right track.
2014-15: Only modest forward progress
With his uptick in play late in his rookie season and the accolades that he received coming out of the draft still close in the rearview mirror, Elias Lindholm was a trendy pick for breakout player heading into the 2014-15 both with Carolina Hurricanes fans and media and also the broader NHL media. And though there was no vault upward to superstar level, there was step-wise progress upward. Lindholm found some chemistry with regular line mates Jeff Skinner and rookie Victor Rask, stayed healthy throughout the season and increased his scoring 39 points in 81 games. If you put potential and future to the side, I think it would have been fair to characterize Elias Lindholm as a decent but not great, serviceable third-line NHL forward in 2014-15. With a reasonably healthy helping of power play ice time and a mix of scoring-capable line mates, his 39 points was okay but definitely not great. And now with 2 seasons to evaluate Lindholm’s skill set and style of play, the word that jumped out at me was ‘vanilla.’ He was a solid and sound hockey player, even a good hockey player, but his game was much lighter on the dynamic element that ws in Jeff Skinner’s and other scorer’s games from the very beginning. Exiting the season still only at 20 years old, the question was whether Lindholm was just progressing gradually toward being an elite player a couple years out or if his ceiling just was not as high as originally hoped.
2015-16: Somewhat stalled progress
With a jump from 21 to 39 points from season 1 to season 2, Lindholm was again a trendy pick to be a breakout player entering his third season in the NHL in the fall of 2015. Lindholm did not have a horrible season, but he did not make the leap forward that many expected or hoped for. He was again a reasonably solid and reliable third line player (though he did also play on the first line with Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg) but did not do that much to suggest he was more than the serviceable NHLer that he grew into in 2014-15. He finished with the same 39 points but a decrease in goals from 17 to 11.
Assessment of Elias Lindholm entering the 2016-17 season
At 21 years old, Elias Lindholm is an experienced NHL player logging more than 200 games over 3 seasons. He has also developed into a positionally and decision-making sound player both on offense and defense. And he has proven capable of providing depth level scoring.
Thus far (and that is an important qualification), Lindholm has not proven capable on a regular basis of being a player who offers dynamic scoring either in the form of playmaking or finishing. And he has not proven capable of being the type of player who drives his line or winning outcomes on a regular basis.
His well-rounded play with some offensive ability fits very well on a third line and is not out of place on a higher line, but in evaluating Elias Lindholm based on what he has accomplished not what he might accomplish, I would classify him as a serviceable third-liner whom a coach can trust to play in any situation.
2016-17: Early results and the shift to center
Coach Bill Peters announced over the summer his intention to shift Lindholm back to his natural center position after the vast majority of 3 years playing right wing. Peters also announced his intention to try a young and talented line of Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen. And that is exactly the situation that Lindholm has been immersed in since Teravainen and Aho joined the Hurricanes after World Cup play.
In that role, I would say that Lindholm has been exactly what he has been thus far. He has not missed a beat in terms of 2-way play despite taking on more responsibilities at the center position. And just like the 3 years prior, through 5 games he has not shown signs of adding a dynamic scoring element to his game.
With the successful shift back to the middle of the ice, I would say that Elias Lindholm continues to look like every bit of a solid third-line forward now either at the center or right wing position.
With Lindholm’s 39-point 2015-16 campaign and his modest start scoring-wise in 2016-17, there are fans that want to label him a bust, trade him and move on. While I do think the probability of a player suddenly taking a huge step up and becoming a star does decrease after 3 years of less than that, that does not mean Elias Lindholm is not a useful hockey player.
I think quite the opposite actually. The foundation of being a sound 2-way player especially at the center position is a good one. That starting point makes for a sound player to whom a head coach can give ice time. That ice time offers the chance to grow. And now as a center first but also a capable right wing who can score at a third-line clip, Lindholm, while maybe not a star, is a good NHL player.
For many Canes fans, I think it is a matter of letting go of whatever high-end expectations and hopes were attached to Elias Lindholm as a #5 overall draft pick and evaluating him for what he can do now and where that fits in a good NHL lineup. I think that is as a solid but not spectacular third-liner whose salary is in line with that role. Importantly, with Lindholm still only 21 years old but with significant NHL experience, I would much rather have him and the potential upside that comes with his age in that role versus trying to make some small upgrade with an older player with less upside and probably slightly higher cost.
Would I trade Elias Lindholm?
I do not get the rationale behind people occasionally saying the team should just trade Elias Lindholm and move on. That is a rash decision possibly born out of frustration from the fact that Lindholm has not become a superstar, but it completely ignores what he has become. Just like almost any other non-core Hurricanes player, I would consider trading Lindholm for the right deal that sees an equal player ideally under 25 years old come back. But by no means would I consider discarding Elias Lindholm to the highest bidder in a fire sale for pennies on the dollar just to move forward/start over.
Projecting the future
I really like what I have seen from Lindholm at the center position early in 2016-17. It looks like his natural instincts and ability that had him unanimously rated as a top 10 selection in the draft has merged nicely with his 3 years of NHL experience primarily at right wing such that he has really not missed a beat in terms of positional and decision-making challenge of the role. With only 1 power play assist thus far, the unfulfilled potential scoring upside continues to be elusive despite a fairly favorable situation with 2 young but skilled line mates. Five games is too short obviously to declare a final verdict on the 2016-17 season and his time with Aho and Teravainen. That could still take off, but even if it does not, I see Elias Lindholm as solid C3 who can also step into a right wing slot if necessary. His decent all-around play and respectable offensive ability projects nice as the type of player who is a solid third line center on a good team, not just a placeholder. While there is still some possibility that Lindholm is a late bloomer who becomes much more, the more modest projection for his future still has value and fits in a winning NHL lineup.
On the topic of Elias Lindholm, I recommend also reading an article on CanesEdge from BarneyFife on Lindholm from last week. The history is not surprisingly similar, and I would not say that the assessment disagrees so much as it looks at Lindholm from a different angle.