When I joined Canucks Army this past summer – that ticker tape parade was a bit much, but appreciated nonetheless – I penned my first piece on the hidden value of Manny Malhotra. At the time, there were some questions about whether Mike Gillis overpaid for effectively a checking center, especially in light of the cap troubles Vancouver has been in this season. As we have our eye on 2011 and the half way point of the season, I thought I’d revisit this question of Malhotra’s value based on those preseason expectations.
At this rate I should really start playing the lotto.
Problem #1 – Center Depth
Then: 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.
Now: Saying Malhotra is versatile is an understatement. He’s playing about 13 minutes a game at ES (Kyle Wellwood played 12 minutes), he’s second highest on the team in PK minutes at 2:47 (Wellwood averaged – no joke – a single second) and he’s averaging about 40 seconds on the man advantage (far off from Wellwood’s 1:47). Granted it’s still early on, but consider Wellwood’s P/60 on the PP was 1.81 and Malhotra’s is currently 6.50. As ES Wellwood had 11 pts (4G, 7A) the first three months of last season and all at even strength; Malhotra is at 14 pts (5G, 9A) and those include PP and SH tallies.
Vigneault has used Malhotra at ES to free his second line of the difficult zone starts that Ryan Kesler & Mason Raymond in particular were tasked with last season. Malhotra next to never starts in the offensive zone; he’s bumped Kesler out of having to grapple with those zone starts. While Kesler’s offensive zone starts have increased slightly (45.1% last year to 49% now) Henrik Sedin’s have jumped significantly (57.7% to 70.2%). In fact, freed from additional defensive responsibilities, the Sedins and Alex Burrows are all in the top five of the league’s offensive zone starts now.
Problem #2 – Faceoffs
Then: 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.
Now: This is cut and dry: largely due to Malhotra, Vancouver leads the league by a decent margin in FO% and they’re the only team where the top three pivots all rank in the top 20 players by number of face-offs taken. Malhotra’s 62.5% is not only the best on the Canucks but is currently second best in the league (and not far behind David Steckel’s league best 63.7% though he has taken far fewer draws).
Problem #3 – Penalty Killing
Then: 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 (cue rebound joke here) it’s a safe assumption they can at least do better than 18th.
Now: As discussed above, no Vancouver forward has more PK TOI than Malhotra. In terms of SH Time/GP, Malhotra was at 33.1% with San Jose last season, but is at 45.3% with Vancouver. No one in the NHL has won more DZ face off wins than Malhotra. Lastly, Malhotra’s GAON/60 on the PK has dropped to 5.25 (better than 7.25 in San Jose and 6.42 in Columbus).
Is it a safe assumption the Canucks can do better? Damn straight: try 7th best at 84.6%. Obviously not all can be attributed to Malhotra’s efforts (Hamhuis has lived on the PK, Kesler has been strong again and Hansen is an unsung hero with his efforts) but he’s a huge piece of the solution.
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.
Malhotra has lived up to his end of the (admittedly) loaded deal. Vigneault has learned to rely on him for the tough zone starts, the FO% shows no signs of slipping and he’s helped right a leaky PK. He’s shored up more than a couple weaknesses from last year’s squad and is making the Canucks a stronger, more honest team for the opposition to contend with. If you were a GM looking to build a winner (in which case you’re not named Sutter), wouldn’t you pay top dollar for this type of result?