May 27 2013 12:04PM
Manny Malhotra, a true character guy, dives for a puck in practice.
Image via wikimedia commons.
This is last week's news, but it's such a multi-faceted and fascinating story that I want to talk about it a bit more.
Manny Malhotra's three year term with the Canucks came to an end, as a player anyway, in February of 2013 when Mike Gillis made the decision to shut the faceoff-ace down permanently. Malhotra couldn't defend himself to an acceptable level for Mike Gillis's comfort any longer, with this superficially innocous incident in a game against the Wild being the final straw. Gillis explicitly compared putting Malhotra into an NHL game - with his limited vision - to allowing a drunk motorist on the road.
Last week reports from the Province and Bob McKenzie indicated that Manny Malhotra isn't ready to end his playing career just yet, which isn't much of a surprise since Malhotra never really agreed with Mike Gillis's decision in the first place. Malhotra intends to hit the unrestricted free agent market on July fifth, and though I'd suggest he'll struggle to secure a one-way contract, he clearly still wants to play and still wants a chance to end his career on his own terms.
Read past the jump.
We've spilled a lot of digital ink discussing the agonizing decision the Canucks felt they had to make regarding Malhotra's safety, but it's interesting in retrospect that the decision very probably hurt the team. Vancouver lacked any sort of centre depth this past season, and struggled mightily in the faceoff cricle in particular (falling from 3rd in the league in 2011-12 to 28th in 2012-13). Those are two areas where Malhotra's presence would've been helpful and potentially invaluable.
In other words, Mike Gillis put his values and the safety of a player under his employ ahead of the team's best interests from a hockey perspective. As Gillis told Scott Oake and Craig Simpson on After Hours this season, he felt he had a responsibility to act:
"We have a responsibility and I think now that we know so much more about head injuries that we didn't know before, and we're moving down a path where we're learning even more about it. But when you have a player at this level who is vulnerable out there, someone has to do something."
The Canucks planned to transition Malhotra into a coaching role, and he even spent some time with the Wolves this past season helping out at practice and working with the team in a coaching-type capacity.
Obviously coaching wasn't for Malhotra - yet - and it's totally understandable to me if Malhotra chaffed under the notion that the choice to end his career was taken out of his hands. It seems obvious to me that Mike Gillis made a choice with the best of intentions to try and protect a guy he rather obviously values. But the choice to play or retire is ultimately Malhotra's, and if he wants to continue to play professional hockey that's his right.
Ultimately I think - and obviously it doesn't matter what I think here, but still - that Mike Gillis was probably right to intervene the way he did. But I certainly hope he was wrong (bear with me and this will make sense). While Gillis's decision strikes me as totally justified, even admirable, Malhotra is a quality individual and player and I truly hope he's able to continue to play hockey, which he obviously wants to do, be successful and avoid a devastating injury going forward...
One more riff on this theme, in an appearance on the Team 1040 last week Mike Gillis talked again about Manny Malhotra's injury at the tail end of the 2011 season, and how big of a dent it put into his team and his teams plans:
The common threads for success in the playoffs are great goaltending, a little bit of luck, and having a really good balanced hockey team and a couple of years ago we had that… Because of different circumstances, yeah we lost some of those players and we lost one player in particular that hurt us and was difficult to replace…
[Blake Price asks Gillis if he's referring to one player in particular]
Manny’s injury was a really devastating injury for a lot of reasons. I know some people think you just go out and replace those kind of guys but you don’t...
Vancouver's centre issues are well documented and came to a head this season with Andrew Ebbett logging major minutes. Cody Hodgson, as beloved as he was, didn't bring the type of "balance" (read: checking ability) that Gillis values in a third-line centre, and the team has now tried and failed to find an adequate Malhotra replacement at the trade deadline in consecutive years (Derek Roy and Samme Pahlsson). The fact of the matter is that before the injury Manny Malhotra was the prototypical Mike Gillis/Alain Vigneault third-line centre. Also there's really no one on the market who strikes me as a good bet to replace what Malhotra brought in 72 games during the 2010-11 season...
Still, heading into this summer Mike Gillis and the Canucks will need to try again. Meanwhile Manny Malhotra will also try again and try to convince a different organization that he's able to defend himself and be effective at the professional level. I have no doubt about the latter point - Malhotra will still win faceoffs, and be a useful penalty-killer at least - and I'd bet you that when they made the decision to shut him down, the Canucks didn't either.