Flames’ Lindholm Has Emerged as a Top Center in the NHL

It’s not often that Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter praises his players during press conferences. Last month, however, Sutter referred to Elias Lindholm as the team’s best center and one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. He went so far as to compare Lindholmm to Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, who has long been one of the top centers in the league.

Elias Lindholm Calgary Flames
Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That’s high praise from someone who is known for being critical of his players in press conferences, but Lindholm has been good at both ends of the ice and ranks third in team scoring behind Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. The comparison to Kopitar is a good measuring stick, but is Lindholm really a top NHL centerman?

What Constitutes a Number One Center?

An NHL center is tasked with not only being good in the offensive zone but also the defensive zone. They are relied on to come down low and help retrieve the puck and break it out to their wingers. Being a solid two-way center is a good benchmark, as well as being a consistent offensive contributor.

Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron is one of the best two-way centers in the league. He has won the Frank J. Selke award, given to the NHL’s best defensive forward, a record four times, and has been a runner-up six times. Not only is he a top defensive forward, but he has also been one of the top three scorers on the Bruins in 11 of the past 13 seasons playing on the top line.

Patrice Bergeron Boston Bruins
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kopitar has won the Selke trophy twice, and has been named a runner-up twice. He has also led the Kings in scoring in 14 of his 16 career seasons. Based on the numbers, comparing Lindholm to Kopitar looks like Sutter was right on the money. 

Lindholm vs. Kopitar

Kopitar burst onto the scene as a superstar at 19, while Lindholm took a little more time to become the player he is today. Lindholm turned 27 in December, and Kopitar was 27 during the 2014-15 season when Sutter was head coach of the Kings. That’s the season we will use for comparison.

In 2014-15, Kopitar posted 16 goals and 64 points in 79 games. During the regular season, he played 1,090 minutes on the top line with a Corsi for of 59.22% (CF%) and expected goals for (xGF%) of 57.66%, both second amongst Kings forwards.

Related: Flames’ Monahan Speaks on Disappointing Start to 2021-22 Season

This season, Lindholm has 12 goals and 29 points in 33 games, which is on pace for 30 goals and 72 points in 82 games. He has a 56.76 CF% and 57.68 xGF%, ranked him fourth and third amongst Flames’ forwards, respectively. After Sean Monahan‘s dip in production in recent seasons, Lindholm has comfortably taken over and become one of the better centers in the league.

Lindholm vs. The NHL

The Flames’ top line has been one of the best in the league this season, but Lindholm has not been a passenger. Both his CF% (56.76) and his xGF% (57.68) rank fifth and sixth, respectively, amongst centers to have played over 375 minutes. Those stats rank among the best in the NHL, including Bergeron, Auston Matthews, and Conner McDavid.

Lindholm’s 29 points rank 30th in the NHL among centers. His 10 points on the powerplay rank 20th in the league among centers. He started the season strong in the goal-scoring department but has since cooled down. His scoring stats may not pop off the page, but he has been arguably one of the Flames’ most consistent contributors since he arrived in Calgary in 2018-19. That leaves one question.

Is Lindholm a Top Center?

Yes. Lindholm is a number one center and has the numbers to back it up. His play on the Flames’ top line this season has exceeded expectations, and he is on pace to have one of the best campaigns of his career. He has done everything to deserve Sutter’s praise.

Calgary Flames Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau Matthew Tkachuk
Calgary Flames Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Since taking over Monahan’s position, Lindholm has been spectacular for the Flames. Since he arrived from the Carolina Hurricanes, he has continued his instant chemistry with Gaudreau and the pair has gelled well with Tkachuk on the right becoming one of the NHL’s top lines. He will continue to be an important piece moving forward as the Flames vie for a playoff spot.

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