Before the injury to Manny Malholtra, I thought the addition of Chris Higgins was a good one. Now that the Malholtra is out for the season with that unfortunate eye injury, however, there’s a chance that the Higgins acquisition will go from "good" to "key" heading into the post-season.
Canucks fans are likely familiar with Malholtra’s strengths: he’s a very capable checking forward who can keep his head above water in tough circumstances. Some of Ryan Kesler’s improved numbers this year are due to the presence of Manny Malholtra: previously, Kesler was mostly deployed mostly in a defense-first, shut-down role at even strength. With Malholtra in the fold, AV has been able to give Kesler the high ground a bit more often this season.
That’s the bad news for the Canucks.
The good news is that Chris Higgins has quietly turned into a similar kind of player over the last few years. After scoring 20 goals a few times earlier in his career, Higgins suffered a couple of injury plagued seasons and his scoring touch seemed to evaporate afterwards, which is why his reputation around the league is so marginal. However, as evidenced by his underlying numbers in Florida this season, Higgins has transformed into one of the better hard-minutes forwards in the entire league.
Here are his advanced stats for 2010-11:
Zone start: 44.4%
Rel Qual comp: +0.740 (good for first amongst Canucks)
Those are quite simply outstanding stats. Any NHLer who starts more often in his own zone and has a double digit possession rate is probably worth a contract or two. It means he moves the play north and sets up his teammates for easier circumstances.
To put those numbers in conext, consider the work by Eric T of Broadstreet hockey. He determined a method of comparing a guy to similarly deployed players throughout the league. His metric, "balanced corsi", speaks very highly of Ryan Kesler, who finishes with the best rate in the entire league (+17.5/60). Fifth overall? Chris Higgins at +15.6/60.
Obviously, Higgins doesn’t replace Malholtra’s ridiculously good 61.7% face-off percentage (no one does), but otherwise the guy is a legitimate checker who should be able to step in and see some tough match-ups, leaving Vancouver’s top-six free to continue to inflict damage on the bad guys.