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The Canucks Are The Right Kind Of Nervous

view of Elias Lindholm from above, stretching during warmups
Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

In much the same way that America lost Cash, Jobs, and Hope in the span of just a few years, Calgary has now had to deal with the departures of Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and now, finally, Lindholm. It's not as catchy, but it's arguably more consequential to the Western Conference playoff picture.

Two years ago, this trio was the coolest and most effective line in the game—dominating possession and decimating opposition. All of them scored at least 40 goals for the Flames in 2021–22. Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk each topped 100 points. Too bad, though, that with head coach Darryl Sutter's lack of people skills and the city's—let us diplomatically say "lack of appeal to a young pro athlete"—winning wasn't enough glue to hold these guys together. Tkachuk pushed for a trade and got it, moving to sunnier Florida to become the face of a feisty Panthers group. Gaudreau passed up a new contract and decided he'd fallen in love with the city of Columbus, where he now toils in obscurity. The Flames couldn't weather the blow, missed the playoffs last year, ditched Sutter, and under new leader Ryan Huska are a squad stuck in neutral. Elias Lindholm felt like the man left behind. His drop from 42 to 22 to nine goals this season tells the story of a forward who found his function and then had it ripped from him. Look at the way things used to be.

The prettiest numbers have lost their shine since the breakup of the SuperBuds. However, there's still a backbone to Lindholm's play that made him an appealing target for the NHL's upper crust. He works hard on defense, wins faceoffs, and has of course proven himself as a scorer when he has the right supporting cast. Somehow, that upper crust this year includes the Vancouver Canucks, leaders in the Flames' division, and on Wednesday they acquired Lindholm in a trade that will force Calgary to do some digging but leaves them with more pieces than they had last week. The crate on their doorstep includes what'll be a late first-round pick in 2024, a conditional fourth-rounder, an NHLer in Andrei Kuzmenko, a prospect some folks are interested in, and some guy.

The Canucks are moving through this season like a weightlifter with wobbly legs. Everything about them screams that they're about to drop their prize and collapse—not just their history of disappointment, but the fact that depth guys like Dakota Joshua, Sam Lafferty, and Pius Suter (pronounced "Pew") are scoring on 20 percent of their shots. But the warning signs haven't borne out yet, as even with a couple of less-than-stellar defensive games, the scoring has kept up and delivered nine wins in their last 11, with neither of those losses coming in regulation.

For Vancouver, Lindholm serves as something like a recreation of Bo Horvat, the top center that the Canucks dealt last year when times were much bleaker. Particularly in a season like this, where it feels as though they have this one fleeting shot at magic, adding a good player on an expiring deal with a cathedral ceiling can't really hurt them. What they're giving up isn't a strain, either. There are the long-term tickets, like the pending first-rounder and the 19-year-old Kitchener D-man Hunter Brzustewicz, whom Calgary will have to mold, and then there's Kuzmenko. The 27-year-old Russian entered the NHL like the Kool-Aid man last year, scoring 39 in his first season. Then he signed a two-year, $11 million deal, immediately regressed hard, and before the ink was even dry got classified locally as a has-been—a broken scorer who couldn't do anything else on the ice. I wouldn't condemn Kuzmenko any more quickly than I'd anoint Dakota Joshua, but I'd also happily swap him for Lindholm in any lineup.

If the West's upper crust is well-established, the wild card picture is mostly gross dregs. Last night's clash between the Kings and the Preds pitted seven against nine, but also a screwball comedy that'd lost 14 of their last 16 games against a burned-out husk of a party that'd dropped five of seven. The team between them is the St. Louis Blues, and neither you nor I want me to spend any time thinking about them. It's embarrassing that the Flames can't even break into this circle of slugs, for one, but for the potential No. 1 seed Canucks, it helps them focus their sights as high as it gets. The second half of the season, even the first round, should be the prologue to the real challenge, which is trying to keep up with the West's best. The Lindholm deal is a sign that Vancouver understands who their competition is—and that their 33-11-5 record masks a team that could benefit from some beefing up ahead of playoff series against the big boys. I don't know if the Canucks are true Cup threats, but they're acting like it.

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