This is another in a series of stories about what the Hurricanes must do to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For Elias Lindholm of the Carolina Hurricanes, each of his four NHL seasons has ended with the same feeling.
“Disappointed,” he said. “Going home the last four years, it’s always been disappointing,”
Each year, there was hope of extending the season and being a part of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the past eight years – now four for Lindholm – the Canes have been on the outside looking in.
This season, Lindholm said, that has to change.
“I’ve been here for a few years now and you’re not playing to just have fun,” he said. “You’re playing to win. I think everyone has their mindset on the playoffs.”
Whether the Canes will do it, end the playoff drought, remains to be seen. There’s the matter of getting better goaltending and increased scoring and finding a way to win more close games and gain points from games that go to overtime or shootouts.
Lindholm, 22, was the fifth overall pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, a Swedish center with a good hockey pedigree – his father, Mikael, briefly played with Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings and in Sweden.
In the past four seasons, Lindholm has proven he’s tough enough to play in the NHL. His collisions with other players have left some sore and others muttering after games.
He’s solid in the defensive zone, active in penalty killing, versatile on the power play, strong on faceoffs. He can play the wing or center. His 34 assists last season, many primary helpers, were a career best and his 43 blocked shots tops among the Canes’ forwards.
What’s lacking? Scoring.
Lindholm had 11 goals in 72 games last season. He had 11 in 82 games the season before. For a player of his caliber, it isn’t enough.
“If I could up it to 20 or 25 goals, I would happy, and that’s where I’m aiming to be,” Lindholm said. “That’s where I should be, too.
“I know I have a good shot. I’ve just got to shoot more. Maybe be a little more hungry to score early in the season and then you can ride off that. If you take the first 17 games to score, you’re grabbing the stick too tight. Just be sharp from the beginning.”
A year ago, Lindholm put 55 percent of his attempts on net, a good thing. He had 151 shots in all but 7.3 percent conversion rate (Jeff Skinner, in comparison, converted 13.2 percent of his 281 shots) and didn’t score until the 17th game of the season.
“If anything he’s a little snakebit,” Canes general manager Ron Francis said. “It’s not for a lack of opportunities. There’s times when it seems like he’s got the goaltender beat and and it hits the shaft of the (goalie’s) stick or the knob of the stick. He’s trying to pick that top corner or trying to be a little too perfect, and he puts it over the top of the net.
“Some of that is just the maturation process and getting a better understanding of his game and the league around him. Hopefully he can find that next level and add that dimension to his game.”
Center Victor Rask said if he and Lindholm each produced five to 10 more goals apiece, it would have a big impact for the Canes. Rask had 16 last season and like Lindholm was disappointed.
“He’s 20-plus for sure,” Canes coach Bill Peters said of Lindholm. “I really liked the way he played the second half of last year. I thought his last third of the year he was a dominant player in the league.”
Dominant? That’s a strong word to use, but Peters is a Lindholm believer. He likes his game and the way Lindholm – who is listed at 6-1 and 192 pounds but said he came to training camp at 203 – goes about playing it.
Peters had Lindholm at right wing with Jordan Staal at center and rookie Sebastian Aho on the left side at times last season. The three have stayed together early in training camp.
Lindholm joined Rask and Canes teammate Joakim Nordstrom on Team Sweden and won a gold medal in the 2017 IIHF World Championship after the NHL season. Lindholm celebrated the victory but it’s not what he wanted.
“You want to win over here,” he said.
Nor is Lindholm the only one who has felt empty the past few seasons.
“He’s another guy who’s not happy,” Peters said. “He’s not content with where he’s at. He thinks there’s more to his career than what he has been able to accomplish to this point. I think we’ve got a lot of guys in that situation.”