Manny Malhotra centres the “first checking line”


For the last couple of weeks, I have been very interested in Alain Vigneault’s utilization of fourth line centreman Manny Malhotra. The hope is that eventually the mainstream writers and reporters in this town will hop on to the fact that he starts shifts in the defensive zone at a higher rate than any player since the start of the BehindTheNet era (2007-08) and it’s very likely that he ranks as one of the highest in the history of the league.

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What does this mean? As you probably know if you read this blog often, Malhotra has a specific role on the team: he goes out for defensive zone faceoffs, he often wins the draw, but when he doesn’t, he sustains the pressure, gets the puck out and goes to the bench. He plays as centreman between Maxim Lapierre and the winger du jour often, but has been known to go out in place of Henrik Sedin or Cody Hodgson if it’s a big zone draw.

Malhotra starts 12.1% of zone faceoffs in the offensive end relative to the defensive end, the lowest ratio in the league. The next lowest among guys who play at least 10 minutes a game is Winnipeg’s Jim Slater at 28.1%.

On Saturday, Hockey Night’s Elliotte Friedmann described this perfectly in a short 30-second clip during the Vancouver/Toronto game: 

“Well a lot of coaches go by matching up lines, but our Subway Hockey Night Bio subject is trusted in a particular zone. If you believe advanced stats like the ones found on the website Behind The Net, Manny Malhotra takes only 13% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone and as a result Jim, he has won more than 70 draws in his own zone than any other centre in the National Hockey League this season. Rare to see that kind of use.”

This is the kind of analysis that CBC has the potential to bring to the table. It doesn’t all need to be advanced statistics, but Friedmann is the best in the business at combining both traditional forms of reporting with upper-level analysis. For fans at home watching the game, they now have valuable insight into why Malhotra had just 5 goals and was a minus-10 on the year but still earns valuable ice-time.

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Here at Canucks Army, we often defer to success. The Canucks have won a lot of games since the start of the Mike Gillis regime despite some unconventional moves from head coach and former Jack Adams Award winner Alain Vigneault.

In checking yesterday to see whether Friedmann’s blip had made the radar of any of the local scribes, I found this article from Wednesday about Malhotra by Vancouver Sun writer Elliot Pap. I’m in no real position to question the things that Pap writes as he has many more years of experience in the business than I do (plus I think he coached my baseball team when I was 10) but Pap falls into the trap that a lot of fans have made when discussing Malhotra:

The big change, of course, is that the struggling Malhotra is not part of the third-line mix. His major eye injury last season, and the subsequent surgeries, have resulted in a drop in performance. Malhotra is a team worst minus-10. Lapierre isn’t appreciably better, how-ever, at minus-6.

First off, plus/minus is an atrocious stat. Even when we use Corsi and Fenwick over at Canucks Army or in the statistical blogosphere, we like to introduce some context—tough minutes, easy minutes, playing as Nik Lidstrom’s defensive partner—but Pap fails to recognize this. The trap he falls into is looking at what Malhotra isn’t as opposed to what Malhotra is.

Manny Malhotra isn’t the 11-goal scorer the Canucks had last year, and Vancouver know it. Malhotra’s role is to keep the pressure off of the players the Canucks want to succeed offensively: despite many comparables (Vincent Lecavalier, Pat LaFontaine) hitting career hurdles between ages 30 and 31, Henrik Sedin hasn’t seen a drop in scoring at even strength, firing at a clip of .71 points per game at evens this season as well as last.

Malhotra, taking up the defensive minutes, has also allowed for other Canuck scorers to break out: Ryan Kesler last season, got a few extra offensive starts (he went from a 45% rate to a 50% rate between 2010 and 2011) and developed his two-way game. This season, not only are Sedin and Kesler still starting in offensive situations, but we’ve seen the breakout campaign offensively of Cody Hodgson.

Putting your more gifted offensive players in more offensive situations will help the team more than Manny Malhotra ever could offensively. He’s never been a guy with an ability to create shots or offense. Despite being a first liner for a couple of years in Columbus and a former 7th overall pick, his career-high is 35 points.

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But Malhotra has always been an excellent faceoff man with a penchant for shot suppression. Canucks management knew exactly what they were getting when they signed Malhotra and know exactly how to use him, and frankly, I don’t think they care how a few fans or media members perceive their fourth liner if he is playing his role well.

Despite his minus-9, he is 9th among forwards in ice-time on a team that is 3rd in the league in goals per game and 6th in goals against. This is either done despite Malhotra, or there is some facet to his game that isn’t easily viewed from a traditional standpoint in a pressbox and requires deeper investigation.

I’m going to guess it’s the latter.

  • Great article. I read the Elliot Pap piece last week and scoffed at the Manny quote as well. I shouldn’t feel so comfortable dismissing an established sports writer like Pap, but thanks to Canucks Army’s stats-based articles, I have learned so much about how the Canucks utilize their players successfully. Hopefully the mainstream media picks up on it a bit more.

    Thanks for the great and informative articles! You guys have turned a non-math person into a stats believer.