The Toronto Maple Leafs were in the game, and then they weren’t. Just 55 seconds after the visiting Calgary Flames took a 1-0 lead in the third period of Monday’s game on a power-play goal, Johnny Gaudreau spotted Elias Lindholm, absurdly wide open, streaking into the slot. As quick as the puck kissed his stick blade, it was gone, popping the twine behind goalie Frederik Andersen.
It was Lindholm’s eighth goal just 12 games into his first season as a Calgary Flame. Needless to say, the guy’s enjoying quite the hot streak. He’s already about halfway to his career single-season high of 17 goals. But it wasn’t just the goal itself, which turned out to be Monday’s game-winner, that raised eyebrows. The release was that of a goal scorer. He’s been working on improving it for a while.
“Everyone goes through good and bad times, and when you’re not scoring, you start shooting less,” he said Monday, minutes after being named the game’s first star. “I’ve been working on my shot this summer, and goalies are so good in this league, so you just try to shoot it as fast as possible. For now, they’re going in, so for me, it’s just… keep shooting.”
Lindholm, long a respected prospect but never breaking through as an elite player, looks like he belongs on Calgary’s top line with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Asked if he’s surprised even himself with the sizzling start to the season, Lindholm, quite refreshingly, opted for confidence over modesty.
“Not really,” he said. “I always knew I had a lot of skill. Ever since I played back home in Sweden, I knew I could play at a high level in the NHL. It was probably good for me to get a little change in my career and come to Calgary, and playing with really good players has helped, obviously.”
Lindholm and Monahan went fifth and sixth overall, respectively, in the 2013 draft, and they’ve followed each other’s career since then. They were excited to get a chance at being linemates after Lindholm and Noah Hanifin came over in the blockbuster 2018 draft-weekend trade that sent Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox to the Carolina Hurricanes.
“He was in my draft, and I played against him before, and you keep tabs on different players throughout the NHL and watch them play, and he’s one of those guys who’s fun to watch,” Monahan said.
Lindholm believes he’s a front-line NHLer after underachieving relative to expectations in his first five seasons, never eclipsing 45 points. But has that promising start really cemented him in that role? It might be too early to say that confidently.
First off, the glaringly obvious: Lindholm has scored on 26.7 percent of his shots. That’s clearly unsustainable. Even if he’s legitimately improved his release, he’s a career 9.6 percent shooter, so even doubling that rate, let alone almost tripling it, would be a large ask. Not even William Karlsson, last season’s breakout scorer and league leader in shooting percentage, could convert 26 percent of his looks.
But let’s not just close the case file immediately on account of Lindholm being “lucky.” He’s shooting the puck at a much greater quantity this season than he ever has: 7.44 times per 60 minutes. His career average as a Hurricane: 6.84. Not only is Lindholm getting more pucks on net while playing with the best puck distributors of his career, he’s playing a lot more. Lindholm’s 20:09 per game bests his previous career high by almost two minutes per night. So even if he was converting shots at his career norm of 9.6 percent…factor in the 7.44 shots per 60 minutes, and the 20:09 TOI, and that would put Lindholm on track for a career-high 20 goals. If we let him keep his eight goals and he performs at his normal rate the rest of the year across 70 games, scoring on just 9.6 percent of his shots, he gets a 25-goal year. If his improved shot, not to mention the streamlined goalie equipment, keeps him at, say, 15 percent for the rest of the season, he finishes with 34 goals. So his usage and increased volume suggest he’s more than just lucky. He’s also getting much higher-quality chances. His 13.24 high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 is easily the best mark of his career, per naturalstattrick.com.
The bigger threat to Lindholm’s hot streak is whether he can stick with Monahan and Gaudreau. On the surface, they appear to be clicking nicely, but they’ve allowed six more shot attempts than they’ve generated in 5-on-5 play, per corsica.hockey, making them the 14th-worst line in the NHL in Corsi plus-minus among the 34 trios with at least 50 minutes together – and the 11th-worst defensively. On the flip side of Lindholm getting so many high-danger chances – he’s also giving up the most high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes of his career. Gaudreau, Monahan and Lindholm are finding the net as a group, but they’re not dominating the play by any means, so it wouldn’t be unfathomable to see coach Bill Peters try a different right winger with Monahan and Gaudreau at some point – especially once Lindholm’s luck regresses to the mean.
Still, so far, the positive signs outweigh the negative ones for Lindholm. He’s getting luckier, yes, but he’s shooting the puck more, with a higher degree of skill, with better players getting him the puck in better shooting lanes. We could be looking at this season’s William Karlsson.