Comparing Ryan O’Reilly and Elias Lindholm as potential acquisitions for the Montreal Canadiens

Should the Canadiens walk with Elias, or take a risk and trade within the division?

It’s been repeated ad nauseum for the past three to four years, but the Montreal Canadiens head into the off-season looking for a centre once again. Obviously there is the big fish in free agency in the form of John Tavares, and several smaller ones as well. Names like Paul Stastny have popped up occasionally, but there are still two weeks until we find out whether or not the Habs were truly in on either player. So that leaves the option of potentially trading for a centre ahead of this weekend’s NHL draft, and that has become a prime area of interest in recent days.

The most common name out there on the trade block has been the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly, who in the past few days has come up multiple times in proposals with the Canadiens involved. The other is Carolina Hurricanes centre Elias Lindholm, who may be the victim of a bizarre roster overhaul by Tom Dundon in Raleigh.

Each player comes with his positives and negatives, so it’s just a matter of seeing who may integrate into the Montreal organization more quickly.

Getting into the nitty-gritty right away, there is one drastic difference between Lindholm and O’Reilly, and it’s their contract status. O’Reilly has five years at $7.5 million per season remaining, and is 27 years old. Lindholm is 23 and coming off a two-year bridge deal at $4.5 million, and is now headed for restricted free agency with arbitration rights.

Since joining the Sabres, O’Reilly has three straight 20-goal and 55-point seasons, whereas Lindholm has yet to crack either of those plateaus in Carolina.

For the Habs, the appeal of having an asset already locked down with the ability for the Sabres to retain salary may sway them in that direction. Conversely, acquiring a younger asset with RFA status allows Marc Bergevin more flexibility in how much he is paying for this player and adds another young forward to the roster.

Both players fill a similar role, and if we look at who they were paired up with in terms of forwards and defenders, they were both utilized as premier top-six centres on their respective teams.

While O’Reilly played more minutes at five-on-five than Lindholm, both played heavily with the best their teams had to offer. Lindholm had a healthy dose of Jeff Skinner and Sebastian Aho, and was backed by Jaccob Slavin and Justin Faulk. O’Reilly played with Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo for most of the year while being covered defensively by Marco Scandella and Rasmus Ristolainen.

If the Canadiens do opt for either of these forwards in a trade, there should be no hesitation to slot them in immediately in the top six — not that it would be a difficult task with Montreal’s current depth down the middle.

So they played similar minutes, with similar players on their respective teams, and O’Reilly generated more offence.

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story however. What kind of players are O’Reilly and Lindholm? First, let’s compare their advanced metrics and see how they stack up overall.

The first part that sticks out is Lindholm’s primary assist generation, where he wallops O’Reilly at even strength. The Sabres forward plays against tougher competition while taking far more defensive zone draws in comparison, and even in those minutes does slightly better at suppressing shots against. Neither player has a great shooting percentage, but Lindholm’s individual expected goals for (ixGF) rates far better than his counterpart’s.

Now, with that in mind, over the course of their careers both players have generated more assists than goals. With new tools and data made available, it’s possible to look into their playmaking to see which areas they are thriving in.

Right away O’Reilly appears to be the better playmaker, contributing more to on-ice shots (SCB%) while also creating more one-time shot assists per sixty minutes (1TSA60) and shot assists per 60 (SA60) compared to Lindholm. In addition to this, O’Reilly does better in terms of suppressing shots relative to his teammates than Lindholm, but some context is needed there, mostly related to the fact that the Sabres were an abomination on the ice for the entire season, while the Hurricanes had some semblance of structure and defence. Lindholm himself is no slouch in these categories, performing fairly well across the board. In areas where O’Reilly struggles, he flourishes.

In the shots per sixty category, one timers per 60 (1T60) and in terms of the players’ overall shot contribution becoming a goal or assist, Lindholm comes out well ahead of O’Reilly. Again though, it’s hard to say either player is worse than the other due to team factors. When you add the context of who O’Reilly ended his year with, against Lindholm, it’s not hard to see why his expected goal numbers and shot assists might have dropped off.

Where the players start to see a bit of separation is in the special-teams arena, where both players featured heavily on the power play and penalty kill.  Digging into the man advantage first, it becomes extremely apparent which player was the focal point of his team’s offence.

With Lindholm, the Hurricanes’ power play enjoyed a heavy dose of shot generation in front of the net, and from the top of the faceoff circle — fairly dangerous shooting areas. However, without him they still manage to generate a good amount of offence from the net area, simply flipping their shot generation over to the other faceoff circle.

For Ryan O’Reilly however, he was the driving force when on the ice for the power play, so much so that without him on the ice the Sabres were hapless.

The Sabres’ power play with O’Reilly is almost obscene, generating chances from all over the offensive zone: the net-front, in the slot, and the faceoff circles. With him off the ice, the power play might as well not have bothered at all. The only chances they generated were from the walls at a distance, while at the same time creating zero offence in any dangerous area.

It’s quite literally night and day for O’Reilly, and with the Canadiens’ power play improving but still with plenty of room to grow, adding a major asset like O’Reilly could help free up players like Max Pacioretty and Shea Weber to regain their top offensive form.

While the power play paints O’Reilly in a great light, it’s unfair to say that Lindholm isn’t a solid asset there as well. The penalty kill is a completely different story, and not one that benefits O’Reilly. It might be what tips the scales in favour of Lindholm as a trade target.

The first standout on Lindholm’s heatmap is the ice right in the middle slot and faceoff areas being nearly devoid of opposition shots. A small hot spot right in front of his net is a slight worry, but seeing as that area grows when he’s not on the ice, it points to an issue with his defence partners and perhaps his goaltenders’ rebound control rather than a flaw of his own. The only other hot spots that exist with Lindholm on the ice are from the point, which are rather low-percentage chances with a good goalie in net.

For a team that was completely inept on the penalty kill last year, O’Reilly’s heatmap should give some pause. Four major hot spots crop up on the ice with O’Reilly out there, one in the slot, one in the faceoff dot, and two at the blue line just above the slot. It could be related to the defensive personnel, but with O’Reilly on the bench the Sabres’ penalty kill instantly becomes better. The high-danger areas evaporate almost entirely, the slot and faceoff circle become more clear, and the only hot spot is from players forced to the side wall outside the faceoff circle.

This could be a major deciding factor for the Canadiens if they’re acquiring O’Reilly. If they are hoping he can be a key penalty-killer for them, they could be in for a rude awakening. As it stands Lindholm looks like the better player in that situation, while contributing just slightly less on the power play. It’s an acceptable tradeoff to make.

A quick glance at their five-on-five shot generation might also tip the scales just a little bit more, as Lindholm overall appears to generate more in the dangerous areas, and his team struggles to do the same while he’s off the ice.

The ‘Canes weren’t dead in the water without him on the ice, but it’s pretty apparent that Lindholm drives pucks in the right ways when he’s involved.

Even with O’Reilly on the ice, the Sabres struggled to get shots from the high-danger areas and without him they became even worse at it. It’s hard to blame this on O’Reilly specifically, but as someone who needs to drive offence, this doesn’t paint the best picture. Factor in that just 21 of his 61 points came at five-on-five (sixth on the team), and it’s pretty obvious that he heavily relied on the power play to create his offence.

Ryan O’Reilly is a dominant power-play specialist who is due to have a rebound season, and a fresh start out of a nightmarish time in Buffalo could spark that rebound in other areas. It’s hard to ignore a player who consistently generates a large amount of offence while limiting his penalty minutes to stay on the ice.

In Elias Lindholm the Canadiens could grab a 23-year-old centre whose RFA rights they control, and could use that to create a team-friendly deal for several years. He plays well in all situations, does well generating shots in dangerous areas and is a deft hand on special teams. If Dundon’s words are taken at face value the Habs may be able to steal a young asset from an unappreciative franchise for a change.

So, would you rather walk with Elias, or ramble on with O’Reilly?

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