Why Elias Lindholm is poised to thrive with the Canucks: Film breakdown


The Vancouver Canucks are first in the NHL standings and made a huge splash on Wednesday by trading for Elias Lindholm

That sentence would have seemed downright silly for a Canucks fan to read four months ago. Before the season started, just squeaking into a wild-card spot would’ve made everybody happy. But now the Canucks are all-in and most people aren’t blinking an eye at the move because it’s a sensibly aggressive push to make.

What exactly are the Canucks getting in Lindholm? Here’s a closer look at his game after hours of watching film.


Why Lindholm’s goal-scoring should bounce back in Vancouver

Lindholm’s assist rate has been steady the last three seasons: 40 in 2021-22, 42 in 2022-23 and on pace for 38 this season. But his goal scoring has been on a sharp downward trajectory: he scored 42 goals in 2021-22, 22 last season and has mustered just nine goals in 49 games this season.

Watching Lindholm play, it’s easy to understand why his scoring has crashed recently and why there’s a strong chance it’ll bounce back in Vancouver. Lindholm has a quick, accurate shot from the slot. He excels at finding soft ice in the high-slot area. He creates a bulk of his chances and goals via one-timers.

The problem is that he can’t create a high volume of chances for himself — he needs a high-end playmaker to tee him up.

In his career-best 2021-22 season, I tracked that 29 of his 47 goals in the regular season and playoffs (61 percent) came directly from either a cross-seam pass or a low-to-high pass from a player below the offensive zone faceoff dots. These are plays where another linemate is making difficult maneuvers, drawing most of the defending team’s attention and then flicking a high-danger pass to Lindholm, whose quick release would beat goalies before they got set.

Lindholm scored about a third of his goals in 2021-22 from plays like the one below. In this clip, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau are cycling the puck down low. Because all the defenders have their backs turned to watch the puck behind the net, Lindholm swoops around to find open ice without getting detected and then pulls the trigger on a one-timer.

Here are a couple more goals that look eerily similar.

NHL Edge data shows that Lindholm dominated in this “mid-danger” area. He scored 21 of his 42 regular-season goals from this region, which ranked him in the 99th percentile of NHL forwards. The average NHL forward scored just three goals from there.

Graphic courtesy NHL Edge

In the absence of Gaudreau and Tkachuk, these goals from the high slot have dried up — he’s scored just three goals from “mid-danger” areas so far this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, Lindholm had 10.1 scoring chances per hour at five-on-five during his dominant 2021-22 season but is down to 6.1 chances per hour this season, a 39 percent drop-off.

Here’s an example from a recent game where he finds open ice in the slot but his linemate can’t feed him the puck the way a top-notch playmaker would.

The other part of the equation is that he’s not converting his chances into goals — he’s scored on just 4.2 percent of his five-on-five shots this season, which is unsustainably low.

Lindholm’s skill of getting open when his team’s controlling play down low meshes well with how Vancouver attacks. The Canucks aren’t a rush-based offensive team. They forecheck ferociously, force turnovers, control play down and create chances off the cycle. Playing with a linemate of Elias Pettersson or J.T. Miller’s calibre should boost the number of chances Lindholm gets. From there, it’ll be on him to start converting those looks into goals like he did a couple of seasons ago.

Diving into Lindholm’s two-way play

It’s been a tough season for Lindholm even after you account for the fact that he didn’t have elite linemates.

He just hasn’t looked very impactful at driving five-on-five play: Calgary’s controlled 47 percent of shot attempts and 44 percent of expected goals during Lindholm’s five-on-five shifts this season. He plays tough minutes so that’s critical context, but he wasn’t winning his matchups often enough.

Why has Lindholm’s even-strength impact lacked some zest besides the factors mentioned in the last section?

Offensively, he’s average in transporting the puck up ice and making dynamic plays. Corey Sznajder’s tracking data affirms this. Since last season, Lindholm’s rate of offensive zone entries with control ranks sixth among Flames forwards. He usually makes decent decisions off the rush when he’s given time and space, but there typically has to be some type of defensive breakdown for him to have that opportunity in the first place.

When Lindholm has the puck on a cycling offensive zone shift, he doesn’t have the high-end offensive creativity, extraordinary edges to evade defenders or puck protection to break down the defence. He often opts for the basic low-to-high pass back to the point.

Without the puck, Lindholm’s well-positioned and makes smart reads, but he wasn’t quite as disruptive at breaking up even-strength plays as I expected. There would be flashes of potential, though.

Here’s an example where he makes a clever decision to double-team Leon Draisaitl down low, lift the stick and create a breakout the other way.

Alternatively, watch how fast Lindholm is at closing time and space on the forecheck in the play below. It’s the type of pace away from the puck that Andrei Kuzmenko was never able to bring to Pettersson’s wing.

The problem is that I didn’t see these types of disruptive sequences often enough in the film I watched. At times, it even felt like he lacked a bit of urgency when pursuing the puck. On the play below, for example, he has a chance to keep the play alive in the offensive zone but doesn’t move his feet quickly enough.

Hopefully, the excitement of a fresh start in Vancouver can help Lindholm maintain a more consistent level of puck pursuit and disruption because he certainly has the speed and defensive intelligence to win pucks back.

The penalty kill is where Lindholm’s defensive chops really shined. He wins faceoffs at a prolific rate, closes space quickly and uses his long reach to disrupt plays. Below, you’ll see an outstanding defensive play against Evan Bouchard to force the puck out of the zone. Later, as Edmonton enters the zone, he wins a board battle to dig the puck out again.

Lindholm’s logged the sixth most penalty killing minutes of all NHL forwards since 2021-22. The results are strong, with Lindholm’s goals-against rate ranking 23rd best among 77 forwards with at least 300 PK minutes.

Conclusion

Lindholm is excellent at finding open ice in the slot and has a quick release on his shot, but he lacks the dynamic skill with the puck to consistently drive offensive chances on his own. That’s why his production is so dependent on linemate quality.

He’ll line up with more playmaking talent in Vancouver — and I’d argue playing with Pettersson or Miller should unlock Lindholm’s goal scoring. If he can pair that with quality defensive play and a strong penalty killing impact, he’ll check off every box the Canucks were looking for in a top-six forward.

(Photo: Bob Frid / USA Today)





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