When Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford entered Sunday’s NHL Draft, his goal was simple: draft the best player available that could join the team as soon as next year. Rutherford settled on Elias Lindholm, a 6’0’’ 195lb center from Sweden who’s drawn comparisons to everyone from Peter Forsberg to Niklas Backstrom.
Though nothing has been set in stone, both camps have hinted towards Lindholm getting every opportunity to become the first 18-year-old since Jeff Skinner to stick in Raleigh next year. The only question that remains: where?
Skinner, drafted as a center, was moved to wing to help ease the transition from junior hockey to the NHL and has only now, three years later, been experimenting with a move back to his original position. But unlike Skinner, Lindholm enters the Carolina organization with professional experience. He’s played in Sweden’s top professional league, the Swedish Elite League (SEL), for the last two years and has largely held his own against players more than ten years older than him.
Carolina’s top line won’t be broken up—that much we know. Beyond that, things get murky. Does Lindholm begin his career at center or wing?
If it’s wing, there appears to be two options: centered by Skinner or centered by Jordan Staal. If he’s slotted alongside Skinner, they’ll form the nucleus of a young but offensively dangerous line. It also takes some of the immediate pressure off him. If he’s with Staal, he might be expected to take on more of a two-way role. He’s projected to be one of the more defensively responsible players taken in the top of the draft, and might be thrown into the fire against other teams’ top lines.
But given that he’s already faced tough competition in the SEL, a debut at center should not be ruled out. Though he only took 78 faceoffs last year, he won 58 percent of them. His exceptional vision and general hockey intelligence would be amplified in the middle as opposed to the wing. A depth chart of Eric Staal-Jordan Staal-Elias Lindholm wouldn’t be half bad either.
In a scenario such as this, Skinner appears to be relegated to the wing indefinitely, as does blue-chip center prospect Victor Rask. Having too many centers is certainly not a bad problem to have and gives the team flexibility moving forward should the dreaded injury bug strike again.
Scouts have pegged Lindholm as a top six center, and though he may have trouble unseating either Staal from their hold on that position, he should see ample opportunity at both even strength and on special teams.
Regardless of the capacity in which Lindholm begins his career, fans should be excited about the young Swede. He has the ability to produce in any role in which he is thrust, and the best fit will be found by coach Kirk Muller during training camp.
For now, the first hurdle is to get Lindholm signed. A mere formality in all likelihood, given Rutherford’s adamancy about improving his club through the draft and the team’s surprising nearness to the cap; they simply can’t afford to sign a lesser forward for more money.
Photo credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports, Jan Buler /courtesy Brynäs IF