Did Vigneault start Manny Malhotra too much in the defensive zone?

During the 2010-11 season, the Vancouver Canucks’ third line benefitted from some stellar play from Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider in 2011, sure, but the steady, reliable play of Manny Malhotra, Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres was also important in establishing not just the best defensive team in hockey, but also the most explosive offensive group.

If you bury a player on the Canucks’ third line, it’s not a benefit unless the player is good enough to tread water, i.e.: old their own against top-competition, soak up defensive zone-starts and maintain a close-to-even possession rate. Taking a defensive zone face-off, winning it, and chipping the puck out, or what Manny Malhotra was doing in the 2012 season just isn’t good enough to allow the offensive players room to move.

When zone-start deployment is as extreme as Alain Vigneault’s was in 2012, you’re entering unexplored territory. You try to find a player who has filled a similar role in the past to what Malhotra’s did in Vancouver this past season and it’s quite obvious the player just flat-out doesn’t exist. The Behind the Net era only goes back so far, and I find it hard to believe any coach prior to 2007 would knowingly put a defensive centreman out on the ice for virtually every possible defensive zone face-off he could.

Malhotra had more than two hours less ice-time at even strength in 2012 than 2011. His average shift length, according to NHL.com, was slashed from 39 seconds to 36 seconds. The number of shifts he took in a game was slashed from 25 to 20. His ice-time was cut in nearly every way imaginable, and yet he continued to see more face-offs in the defensive zone:

  D-Zone Starts/60 D-Zone Starts D-Zone Start%
2011 31.4 466 75%
2012 45.6 579 86.8%

Was this an attempt by Vigneault to create two scoring lines instead of one? If that’s the case it didn’t work. The Canucks hardly saw any extra opportunities from 2011 to 2012. Here are where Malhotra finished his shifts:

  O-Zone Finish/60 D-Zone Finish/60
2011 20.5 23.4
2012 17.1 25.0

Is this a case of Malhotra playing worse due to his injury (conceivable, and matches the eye test somewhat) or is it simply because Malhotra played a role where it isn’t theoretically possible to be all that successful. Much of this is theoretical, as after the trade deadline, the Canucks put together a fairly good Fenwick Tied score after the acquisition of Sammy Pahlsson and a bit of the defensive burden on Malhotra was eased. That is to say, Malhotra had a similar defensive zone start %, but he averaged a minute less of ice-time per game.

Perhaps at one time in his career, Malhotra could handle those minutes. But he’s playing in situations that no other player in recorded history has handled. There’s no knowing what the comparables are, or whether it’s positive in any way for the team. Just look at how those reduced minutes but increased defensive zone starts affected his possession and +/- rates:

  Corsi/60 +/-/60
2011 -9.50 0.61
2012 -20.72 -0.94

It’s almost like he just stopped playing with the puck in the offensive zone, with Vigneault sending him out to take the face-off and change on the fly as soon as he could. I don’t doubt that some variation of this is good strategy, but I do doubt that it can result in a net positive for the team at this extent. Would doing it with two guys work? Pahlsson and Malhotra combined to play some fairly awful minutes post-deadline last year, and the Canucks’ overall possession rate spiked.

I think Malhotra playing at defensive start levels similar to Dave Bolland’s (just under 70% the last two seasons) would help out him and the team. Having a second player with that more moderate rate is probably more what Vigneault ought to be gunning for.

With love to the terrific and indispensible BehindTheNet and NHL.com websites

  • The fact that Malhotra accepted this role — a role that, as you say, is pretty much unprecedented — without a word of complaint shows the kind of commitment he has to winning with this team. Everyone has their responsibilities on a successful team but this is to the extreme.