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Canucks need Lindholm to find his game

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The Vancouver Canucks were aggressive in their January pursuit of forward Elias Lindholm, sending a major package — headlined by winger Andrei Kuzmenko and including multiple picks and prospects — to the Calgary Flames to acquire his services.

Lindholm, for many years, was a reliably productive top-six forward whose versatility could be utilized across Vancouver’s lineup. The Canucks, as one of the league’s best teams since the puck dropped in October, saw an opportunity to add firepower at the forward position beyond Elias Pettersson and company.

Just one problem: The versatile Lindholm simply hasn’t fit in. Not yet anyway.

In a regular season where just about everything has gone right for the Canucks, the Lindholm acquisition has moved in the opposite direction. The 29-year-old Swede has just five goals in 22 games, but more distressing are the harrowing on-ice numbers with Lindholm deployed.

What likely made Lindholm so alluring to Vancouver was a track record in Calgary of succeeding with a multitude of linemates and in different deployment scenarios, to say nothing of his dominance in the faceoff circle. But for the first time in his career we saw some slippage in his play earlier in the season with Calgary, and that trend has continued in Vancouver.

It's most noticeable at even strength. Consider the below graph, which shows Lindholm’s real and expected individual goal scoring.

Lindholm was never an electric goal scorer; his career high is an outlier 42-goal campaign during the 2021-22 regular season. That said, even that year moved in line with Lindholm’s ability to regularly pressure opposing defences and generate heavy scoring chance volumes. The total collapse in Lindholm’s expected goal-scoring rate is notable because it’s moving in correlation with slower real scoring. That’s problem number one.

Problem number two, and perhaps the bigger issue: Lindholm’s lines have routinely ran over teams at even strength. Expected goals can be a valuable measurement to track here because it’s appropriately blind to the impact of shooting percentages and goaltending performance, which can distort our view of how well a given player or line is performing.

Lindholm’s lines outplayed the competition for many seasons, generating positive shot and scoring chance differentials on a sustained basis, which generally meant positive real goal differentials. This season looks like a ski slope, though – expected goals have gone negative (and are at a career low), with real goals also in the red:

Two contextual points to consider with Lindholm here. The first, and perhaps the glass-half-empty view: It’s not as if Lindholm is being adversely impacted by the talent around him. We are talking about a forward whose most common linemates included Jonathan Huberdeau and Andrew Mangiapane in Calgary, and post-trade, Pettersson and Conor Garland. That’s plenty of firepower.

The glass-half-full view? Lindholm has been banged up for stretches of this season, and is currently day-to-day, missing Sunday’s matinee affair with the Anaheim Ducks. For a player as reliable as Lindholm has been, an injury – or a series of small injuries – could be the contextual explanation needed to qualify why we are seeing a slowdown in performance. We simply don’t know.

That said, Lindholm may be just 29, but we are talking about a player closing in on 900 career games. Lindholm’s sterling track record gives confidence he can work himself out of this slump, but this deep into a career and with that degree of mileage, there are no guarantees.

It’s also worth recalling something gave Vancouver pause with respect to Lindholm just a few weeks ago. Perhaps they saw other forwards as more appropriate fits within their lineup, but it is remarkably rare for a team to acquire a trade deadline piece as a buyer, then begin looking for a way to upgrade on that addition mere weeks later.

At any rate, one thing seems certain: The Canucks need to get Lindholm going, and quickly. Vancouver is positioned to contend for a Stanley Cup this season, with a superstar at all three positions and a lineup that’s shown to be capable against some of the big guns in the Western Conference.

But Vancouver will need all hands on deck to just get out of the Pacific, let alone win the conference. If Lindholm stays quiet, the road to this year’s title gets much more difficult.

Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Hockey Reference, Evolving Hockey