Mike Gillis has been plenty busy this summer, honing in on Keith Ballard during the first night of the draft and delivering a hometown discount (however slight) for Dan Hamhuis once the clock struck noon on July 1st.
One signing that went under the radar – but not before inviting some immediate scrutiny – was the three-year, $7.5 million dollar deal for 30-year-old Manny Malhotra. Some were quick to wave a nagging finger at the deal, including Pierre McGuire who kindly took it upon himself to suddenly become Cody Hodgson’s agent. Others questioned why Malhotra was a better choice over similar forwards, particularly at a reduced cap hit and one that wouldn’t muddy the waters of the bottom six where there are plenty of existing options (like Hodgson, Jordan Schroeder, Jannik Hansen, Tanner Glass and the newly acquired Joel Perrault and Victor Oreskovich to name a handful).
Make no mistake: not only was Manny Malhotra a smart signing, it was necessary and one that will make the Canucks immediately better in several of their weaker areas.
Problem #1 – Center Depth
Canucks fans have to bid a fond farewell this summer to centers Ryan Johnson and Kyle Wellwood. I’ll wait while you get the fat joke out of your system….there you go. Feel better?
With Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler ahead of him, Wellwood never had the strongest linemates, certainly a far cry from having Mats Sundin as his pivot. His special skills in his first year in Vancouver – PPGs and the shootout – evaporated. His usually slick hands failed him as he didn’t score a ES goal until November; he didn’t score a PPG until February. You can’t fault Pudge for all the problems of the third line, but he did little to redeem himself. The fact we sit here in late August and not a word about what his next steps are suggests other teams have eyes and can read stat sheets.
The same can be said for Johnson: you can’t fault him for fourth line ills (I’m staring at you Hordichuk) but he did little to help his case last season in which he suffered numerous injuries (again) which caused his meager production, shooting percentage and ATOI all to slip. Meanwhile his Corsi was…actually, don’t even click that.
Malhotra provides not only insurance should Hodgson head to the Moose, his versatility immediately makes the top nine better. In the past three seasons he has more points (36 goals, 97 points) than Wellwood (33 goals, 73 points) and accomplished that playing tough minutes, often on a poor team like the Blue Jackets. Buried in San Jose’s depth limited his qualcomp last season but he has shown he can play against the best and, when compared to Wellwood last year, saw more work in both the offensive and defensive zones.
Like Kesler, Malhotra seems adept at facing stronger opposition and still producing. Also – like Kesler – he can be used in any situation: while he’s perhaps better known for work on the PK (more on that in a second) he can be deployed at ES and the PP, flexibility which neither Wellwood or Johnson provided. Lastly, he can flip to the wing in case Hodgson makes the roster and possesses the speed and hands to be a serviceable top six guy in case of injury.
Worst case scenario (besides, you know, a broken arm): he ends up with sheltered minutes on the fourth line which is a crime at his cap hit but a ridiculous upgrade for that position.
Problem #2 – Faceoffs
Vancouver’s luck in the circle has certainly been improving: two seasons ago they were 24th in the league (48.7%) and finished last season at 7th (51.4%). It doesn’t hurt to have that Art Ross / Hart Trophy guy and a Selke nominee leading the way, but the departing Wellwood and Johnson were #3 and #4 in faceoff wins respectively, taking a combined 1,262 draws. If you subtract them you’re left with Rick Rypien and Alexandre Bolduc to pick up the slack (yikes).
Malhotra has made a name for himself in the circle, especially with the Blue Jackets and Sharks. He has strung together three team-leading FO% years: 59% in 2007-08 followed by 58% and 62.5% last year. Though Benn Ferriero technically was higher, Malhotra took far more draws last season making him the #1 guy for faceoffs on a team which, collectively, was one of the best faceoff teams in over a decade. He also lead them in the post season at 60.7%. The only knock against him was he took less draws in San Jose than in Columbus, but that’s bound to happen when you have Thornton, Nichol, Marleau and Pavelski in front of you.
If Vigneault can lean on Malhotra like Hitchcock did in 2008-09, he could easily approach 1,200-1,300 draws again, eclipsing what Wellwood and Johnson offered combined (though his FO% would surely dip). Vigneault can roll out Henrik, Kesler or Malhotra in any situation and – should Hodgson make the cut – will help shelter his draws for his rookie year and allow Rypien and whomever else to pick up the fourth line slack.
Problem #3 – Penalty Killing
In the past few seasons, the Canucks have suffered from the puke-inducing combination of a declining PK (ranked #1 in 2006-07 at 86.9% but plunged to #14, #16 and finally #18 last year) and a generally high penalty rate (#19 most penalized team in 2006-07 followed by #29, #28 and #18 last year). If you’re going to hand over valuable moments of the game, you best learn to kill them off; see Anaheim’s championship season for more on that.
Vancouver hasn’t been able to roll out a solid PK in years and one can fault Luongo (who has no shortage of critics), coaching (paging Ryan Walter…) or the talent pool in general. No matter how you slice it, the numbers speak for themselves.
Malhotra has lived on the PK the past few seasons: 33.1% of the total SH time with the Sharks, 42.1% with Columbus before that (that 33.1% would rank him just behind Kesler and Burrows last season). Obviously the center needs to win the shorthanded draw and begin the sequence of clearing the puck against the opposition. Considering Malhotra was 65.3% successful on shorthanded draws last season should only help; in contrast, Kesler was only 49%.
From a GAON/60 standpoint, Malhotra wasn’t great last season (h/t FTF comments) but his 7.25 is far better than Ryan Johnson’s and puts him roughly in the same family as Kesler and Mason Raymond who, along with Burrows, are the top three PK’ers for the Canucks. With his bigger role in Columbus he had a GAON/60 of 6.42 so he can definitely be better and his presence should help a club looking to improve.
You can’t really account for all the possible variables and flat out luck that happens on the PK, but if you have defensive-minded forwards like Malhotra and Kesler with more defensive-minded blueliners in Hamuis and Ballard behind them and finally Luongo in net (que rebound joke here) it’s a safe assumption they can at least do better than 18th.
One final point: Malhotra gives Vigneault another option other than Kesler. Between the two, who would you rather have rested for a ES shift or, better still, take a puck to the face and sit out a few games?
Sure, his cap hit is a bit much but that’s free agency for you. Many fans clamored for Andrew Ladd or would have liked to see a deal for someone like Scottie Upshall (both of who have similar cap hits) but those guys weren’t UFAs and a sure thing is what Gillis needed. Family connections made Vancouver an easy pick, he’s a leader in the locker-room, but most importantly, Malhotra should earn his keep by doing the little things his predecessors didn’t and make the Canucks – in more ways than one – better in the process.