(This article was cross-posted at the Score.com)
Alain Vigneault’s extreme method of doling out ice time and circumstances has been mentioned in this space before. Aside from the Sedin twins, no player better represents the Vancouver coach’s habits better than Manny Malhotra. While the twins enjoyed some of the most favorable starting positions in the entire league this year, Malhotra was at the other end of the spectrum. As a result, his value to Vancouver isn’t quite revealed in counting numbers.
Malhotra scored just 11 goals and 30 points this season from the Canucks third line. Not terrible results, but it seems like a drop in the bucket given Vancouver’s league leading 258 goals. However, Malhotra’s role wasn’t to score points: it was to do all the dirty work so the Canucks top-six could have the high ground as much as possible. The Sedin’s league leading zone start ratio of 70%+ was paid for by Malhotra, whose 25% ratio was the lowest amongst regular skaters in the league this season. Only two other guys were below the 30% mark: The Flyers Blair Betts (26.9%) and Malhotra’s regular line mate Raffi Torres (29.6%). In raw numbers, that means Malhotra saw 311 more defensive zone versus offensive zone draws during the regular season.
Upon first glance, Manny’s underlying possession numbers seem worse than mediocre (-9.50 corsi/60). However, if we correct for his extreme circumstances, we see that he was actually pretty capable. Here is his corrected corsi rate, which "zeros out" the effect of all of those extra defensive zone face-offs:
|Player||corsi per 60||ES ice time||corsi raw||O-zone||D-zone||correct corsi||CC per 60|
Malhotra’s corrected corsi rate is +6.89, a much healthier number. To put his results in perspective, Blair Betts (the only other center within spitting distance of Malhotra in terms of starting ratio) managed a much uglier -18.19/60.
One of the reasons Malhotra is so effective in his "defensive only" role is his incredible ability to win draws. Most of the time I consider face-off skill to be rather unimportant since most players are +/- 50% on the dot. Malhotra, though, is an extreme outlier. This season he finished with a 61.7% win rate, trailing only Washington’s David Steckel (62.3%) by that measure. As a result, Malhotra won the second most defensive zone draws amongst centers this season with 296 and he likely only trailed the leader (Steve Ott) because he missed the final 10 games of the year. Malhotra’s win rate in the defensive zone was even higher, a mind-boggling 63.5% at even strength. This is notable because as Gabriel Desjardins has noted in the past, losing a defensive zone draw can spike shots and chances against in the immediate aftermath. As Gabe says "it’s as though you gave the other team a 10-15 second power-play. For several seconds, the rate of shots allowed is as high as it is on a 5-on-3."
This issue is especially pertinent in one goal games and, obviously, when killing penalties. Naturally, Malhotra also figured prominently on the Canucks penalty kill this season, averaging a team high 2:45 a game a man down. He won the second most draws on the club (136) on the PK behind only Ryan Kesler (138), again primarily because Kesler played the whole season and Malhotra didn’t.
The effect of Malhotra’s absence ripples across the Canucks line-up. It means guys like Ryan Kesler and Maxim Lapierre are forced into more defensively oriented positions at even strength. It means less defensive zone face-off wins in general and it lowers everyone elses zone start ratio across the board. Kesler and the Sedins are hovering about below their season ratios in the playoffs so far, for example. In addition, Lapierre has filled in as Malhotra’s de facto replacement, with a zone start of about 29%. His face-off win rate is just 50% and his corsi rate is abysmal (-20.14/60), which again reiterates just how tough Malhotra’s job was.
As such, if Malhotra can return for the finals he probably won’t kick in a lot of goals or assists. What he will do, however, is imporve the PK, help tilt the ice in the Canucks favor at even strength and put their scoring forwards in a better position to succeed.