Why the Calgary Flames’ Elias Lindholm dilemma already feels like a no-win

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CALGARY — Elias Lindholm had a short, yet direct and punchy media scrum on Wednesday morning ahead of the Calgary Flames’ annual preseason golf tournament.

In his mind, he’s made his intentions known about his potential future with the Flames. The recent front office changes might not have mattered as much as we thought when it came to his decision. Lindholm doesn’t need a hot start to convince him to sign an extension, which is much different from his fellow pending unrestricted free-agent teammates Mikael Backlund and Noah Hanifin. The Flames are the only team right now that can give him the longest term and pay him the money he feels he deserves.

So, what else is there to say if you’re Lindholm?

“I’ve been pretty clear that I’m willing to stay,” Lindholm said Wednesday. One of the many short answers in a scrum that wasn’t longer than five minutes. (For context, Hanifin’s was shorter by a few seconds, but his future outlook was more open-ended and featured more words.)

That quote should be seen as optimistic considering reports from earlier this summer suggesting he wanted out. But it looks more as if Lindholm has GM Craig Conroy and the Flames over a barrel. Because the Flames failed to sign, or trade, Lindholm this summer, they’ve entered a situation they hoped to avoid. The Flames now have to scramble to avoid repeating the sins that resulted in Johnny Gaudreau leaving as a free agent in 2022.

There is an obvious debate about whether or not the Flames should keep or trade Lindholm. But the Flames will likely endure pain no matter which option they choose.

In Lindholm, they have a 28-year-old first-line, defensively responsible centre in the final year of a reasonable $4.85 million AAV contract that only five teams (Detroit, Nashville, Buffalo, Chicago and Anaheim), according to Cap Friendly, can afford without moving any salary at the moment. For those wondering and somehow still hoping for it, Columbus’ projected cap space is at $4,729,167. The Flames’ chances of a good return get even more limited if those teams can’t get a guarantee that Lindholm will sign for the long haul with them.

Finally, teams like Colorado, Pittsburgh and St. Louis acquired centres this offseason, shrinking the pool even further.

“With the cap only going up a little bit and now everyone is not really sure where the cap is going next year, it’s been a little more challenging,” Conroy said.

For example, our Boston writer Fluto Shinzawa made the case for the Bruins to play the waiting game with Lindholm; next summer, they’d be able to afford Lindholm with over $19 million in cap space if they let some contracts off the books. There is some incentive for teams like Boston to wait it out as they examine the salary cap before shelling out millions for a new centre.

The trading window to move on from Lindholm has passed and it probably won’t surface again until the trade deadline. If the Flames aren’t competitive by then, unable to contend with division foes like Edmonton and Vegas, Conroy will be forced to move on from Lindholm by then and try to recoup whatever assets he can get for a rental. But what if the Flames are competitive come the trade deadline? What if the Flames’ talent actually delivers and makes good on their playoff aspirations?

“You’re hoping if we’re in first place in February that guys will want to sign,” Conroy said.

It’s well and good to hope. But the Flames experienced the same thing with Gaudreau during the 2021-22 campaign and he left for nothing. Even Matthew Tkachuk decided to get out while the going was good, too.

But how about if the Flames catch a break and find a willing trade partner for Lindholm during training camp? What does that do for Backlund and Hanifin and their respective wait-and-see approaches? Would they want to stay around a team that just flipped its No. 1 centre? Lindholm, Backlund and Hanifin and their futures were constantly lumped together this offseason, and it wouldn’t be surprising if a Lindholm move affected their thinking in some way. It might not mean they’d want out right away, too, but some impact would be felt for them.

And for their teammates who aspire to return to the playoffs.

“Every team has some guys that have one-year contracts and they have to decide what they want to do,” Flames forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. “I think we’re going to be a good team. I think they’re going to see that, hopefully. That’s why we want everybody to stay. We’ve got a good fit here. We’ve got a good locker room.”

But still, no game-breaking talent to put them over the top. It’s what plagued the team last season. A goals-by-committee approach will likely be the MO once again, at least for this season, as they don’t have leading goal scorer Tyler Toffoli on the roster anymore.

Perhaps it depends on what they get in return in a Lindholm trade. A player of equal value? Younger players who can contribute to a roster right away? Draft picks? What we know is that if a Lindholm trade doesn’t get the Flames a replacement No. 1 centre, their playoff chances take a direct hit.

Without Lindholm, the Flames would have to ice a 1-2 centre depth of Nazem Kadri and Mikael Backlund. Lindholm did have a down year last season compared to his 2021-22 Selke-nominated campaign, but the Flames’ centre depth quality decreases without him.

We’ve provided some doom and gloom if the Flames trade Lindholm, so it’s only right that we do the same if they keep him. If the Flames sign Lindholm, it means they’re doubling down on 28-, 29- and 30-year-old players as opposed to building around a younger core on more manageable contracts. And you can forget about retooling or rebuilding for the foreseeable future. Despite going on 29 years of age, Lindholm’s camp can easily make the case to ask for money north of Bo Horvat’s $8.5 million AAV contract.

This means that if this core isn’t sufficient for the Flames to win the Stanley Cup, Lindholm’s contract could potentially become another hurdle in shedding salary, especially if the cap does not go up as much as general managers hope it will over the next few seasons.

Conroy will have to decide what he thinks is ultimately best for the Flames long-term. It’s not going to be an easy call.

(Top photo of Elias Lindholm: Norm Hall / NHLI via Getty Images)

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