The Carolina Hurricanes may need a lot of things to go right this season if they’re to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Among them: the continued development of Swedish forward Elias Lindholm.
Lindholm was the Canes’ first-round draft pick in 2013 and played 58 games as rookie last season. Shoulder and wrist injuries slowed him early in the year, but there were flashes of good play, a glimpse of his potential, and he was effective down the stretch of the season on a line with Jeff Skinner and Riley Nash.
“I think he took big strides from the beginning of the year,” Canes captain Eric Staal said. “You could see the talent and the skill and the smarts right off the bat.
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“I expect bigger things out of him this year because he’s going to be a good player and play in this league a long time. Hopefully he did the right things this summer and is a little stronger and just builds off last year, because he can be a big part of this team.”
It wasn’t a smooth adjustment for Lindholm, called “Lindy” by his teammates. He had played in the Swedish Elite League, against bigger, older players, but needed to get a quick feel for the smaller North America rinks and deal with the rigors of competing in the NHL against the best players in the world.
Lindholm’s final numbers – nine goals, 12 assists – were modest. He spent some time with the Charlotte Checkers, in the American Hockey League, and the Canes encouraged him to play with Sweden in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in his home country.
“I learned a lot,” Lindholm said of the season. “Injuries and stuff, how to play the game. For me, this season, it can only get better. After one year I can start playing better and better.”
Canes general manager Ron Francis said Lindholm leaving for the World Junior Championship was a pivotal point in his first season. Lindholm, 19, returned more focused, with a more confident vibe to his game.
“He struggled a little with his confidence,” Francis said. “He played a prominent role for his (Swedish) team. He came back and was a different player. I think the last half of the year he began to really blossom.”
A more comfortable Lindholm had five goals and four assists in the final 23 games. He played nearly 23 minutes – a season high – against the Anaheim Ducks and notched his first career two-goal game April 1 in a 4-1 road win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“He has a lot of maturity and plays older than he is,” Skinner said. “I think he did a great job building and getting better throughout the season. Sometimes you expect young guys to kind of tail off or not be able to handle the grind of the season, but he actually improved as we went along.
“I think he had a great summer. He looks great (in informal workouts) so far. I think if he keeps that confidence he’s going to be real good for us.”
Few rookies could compare last season with forward Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, the No. 1 pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and the Calder Trophy winner as NHL rookie of the year. MacKinnon can be a blur on the ice and appears to be a big star in the making.
Lindholm, the No. 5 overall pick, has some flash to his game. The 6-1, 192-pound winger was sound on the defensive end and has a knack for picking his spots to make plays in the offensive zone
“You see the little things in his game,” Francis said. “When he goes in to take a faceoff, he takes it with the experience of a five- and 10-year centerman. He understands the process of how to take a faceoff. You see him working the goal line on the power play, see him thinking the game.”
Lindholm, who said he added strength in the offseason, will give new Canes coach Bill Peters flexibility in his ability to be used at center or on the wing. Lindholm said he prefers the wing but knows that will be sorted out in preseason training camp.
“You can always get better all over the ice, but I want to be more productive and produce more points, get more shots to the net,” Lindholm said. “Hopefully I can keep building on that last part of last season.”