A Note on Manny Malhotra’s Matchups

Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

The news out of Canucks practice today is that Manny Malhotra isn’t taking part for whatever reason. I’d assume that it’s nothing serious and that he’s just getting a maintenance day, but I’m sure the Canucks will vaguely brief the media and partially his absence at some point on Monday afternoon. 

In the early going this season, Malhotra has delivered basically what is expected from him at this point. Obviously he isn’t quite the dominant defensive force that he was in ’10-11, and probably doesn’t have a regular spot in a contending team’s top-nine. But he’s still a reliable face-off winner, he’s still being trusted to soak up defensive zone starts, and he still plays Vancouver’s toughest minutes among forwards when the team is short-handed. 

Read on past the jump.

As we pointed out in early January while captioning Vancouver’s "Total Player Charts," Manny Malhotra’s usage since his freak eye injury in the seventy-second game of the ’10-11 season, has come to resemble Ryan Johnson’s in 2009-10. Now in fairness to Manny Malhotra, he’s still the super premium version of Ryan Johnson, but the Canucks are using him as a fourth line centre, and a specialist on defensive zone draws and on the penalty-kill. In short, Manny Malhotra still provides the team with value albeit perhaps not 2.5 million per year of value.

On Monday, arch-Corsi skeptic and purveyor of HockeyAnalysis.com (an indispensible resource) David Johnson wrote a smart bit reminding us not to assume that a player necessarily faces tough minutes just because he has an extremely low offensive-zone start percentage. Here’s the meat of Johnson’s point:

Looking at who is 300th on the list of forwards in HARO QoC [Johnson’s in-house version of quality of competition], it’s none other than Manny Malhotra of massive defensive zone start bias fame. Malhotra’s HARO QoC is just 0.980 while the Canucks center who is assigned mostly offensive zone starts, Henrick Sedin, has a HARO QoC 0.994, which isn’t real difficult but is somewhat higher than Malhotra’s. So, despite all those defensive zone starts by Malhotra (presumably because he is considered a better defensive player), Henrik Sedin plays against tougher offensive opponents. How can this be? Despite Malhotra’s significant defensive zone start bias his five most frequent 5v5close opponent forwards over the previous 2 seasons are David Jones, Matt Stajan, Tim Jackman, Joran Eberle, Matt Cullen. Aside from Eberle those guys don’t really scare you much. It seems Malhotra was facing Edmonton’s top line but not Calgary’s, Minnesota’s or Colorado’s. Henrik Sedin’s top 5 opposition forwards are Dave Bolland, Dany Heatley, Curtis Glencross, Olli Jokinen and Jarome Iginla. Beyond that you have Backes, O’Reilly, Bickell, Thornton, Zetterberg, and Getzlaf. Despite the massive offensive zone start bias, it seems the majority of teams are still line matching power vs power with the Sedins. The conclusion is defensive zone starts does not immediately imply playing against quality offensive players. It can be argued that despite the defensive zone starts Manny Malhotra plays relatively easy minutes.

Using a rigid zone start system like the Vancouver Canucks do actually makes it easier for opposing teams to line match on the road as they know who you are likely to be putting on the ice depending on where the face off is. If the San Jose Sharks want to avoid a Thornton against Malhotra matchup, just don’t start Thornton in the offensive zone. Here are all the forwards with >750 5v5close minutes and at least 40% of the face offs they were on the ice for being in the defensive zone along with their HARO QoC.

That we need to look deeper than a player’s offensive zone-start rate when defining just how difficult that player’s minutes are, is something Eric T. convinced me of over the summer. What I find particularly fascinating, however, is Johnson’s point that perhaps Vancouver’s "rigidity" in matching lines based on draw location can work against them since it adds an element of predictability to Vigneault’s deployments.

I’m not really sure if there’s something to that, my initial reaction is that opposition coaches probably aren’t game-planning around Malhotra too much at this stage (and if they are, they shouldn’t be). But Johnson’s case is compelling and this will be worth watching going forward. 

Anyway, Manny Malhotra is having a relatively strong start to the season in my view. No he’s not the player he was before his injury, but he’s playing extremely low-event hockey through eleven games and Vancouver’s opponents are only generating seventeen shots against per sixty minutes with Malhotra on the ice according to BehindtheNet. Malhotra is basically a trap-it up expert, and "safe minutes" is all Alain Vigneault usually requires at the bottom of his line-up.

Malhotra’s personal goal differential (plus/minus, Malhotra is a -3) isn’t pretty, but plus/minus is stupid anyway. Also his minus three should be explained away by that 910 PDO he’s carrying, which is primarily driven by Schneider’s and Luongo’s .854 even-strength save percentage with Malhotra on the ice. On a team getting .950+ goaltending so far this seaso at evens, that’s atrocious bad luck and it’ll even out over the balance of the year. 

All of which is a long way of saying that the technical aspects of the Canucks’ usage of Malhotra continues to enthrall me (because I’m a massive nerd), and that, for all of the concern about his effectiveness the past couple of seasons in the Vancouver market: he remains a reasonably useful fourth-line centreman and situational specialist.

  • these are the kinds of articles that make me come to canucksarmy.com

    Manny is such class, I’ve been looking for a reason to jump back on his bandwagon. Great breakdown that nudged me back onto the pro-Manny side. Like you said, maybe he’s not quite 2.5 million dollars worth of hockey player anymore, but he brings intangibles to the team that make the cap hit palatable.

  • DCR

    I want to be clear that I have no idea whether the Canucks predictability in how they zone start their players is a negative or not. It does, in theory, allow opposing teams to line match easier while on the road so in theory it might give an advantage to teams who smartly line match. The majority of teams seems to line match power vs power as far as forwards are concerned. The Carolina Hurricanes (Sutter) and Chicago Blackhawks (Bolland) are a couple of the teams that seem to have taken more of a shutdown line vs opposing teams offensive line strategy. Other teams seem to look to match up their shutdown defensemen vs opposing teams offensive line.

    There has to be a lot more study before we can conclude whether one strategy is better than another and it is probably highly dependent on the types of talent each teams possesses so we can probably not even answer that question very well. Boston has a lot of success matching up their high quality 2-way players (Bergeron, Chara) against opposing teams top lines but that wouldn’t work as well for other teams without those elite 2-way players. Vancouver has had good success with their zone start system but is it due to the zone start system or the fact that they have really good players? Would they be better in a line matching setup and trying to get more favourable match ups for the Sedins? I don’t know and I am not even sure we can know.

    (BTW, there is no ‘t’ in my last name. The Governor General has the ‘t’ not me)

  • DCR

    I actually think it’s on the road where the zone start vs. matchup system provides the most benefit for the Canucks. With a dedicated defensive start line, you never have to worry about the other team’s advantage of last change because you aren’t trying to predict who they’re going to put out against you.

  • Don’t get me wrong as I am a big fan of Malhotra, but I’m wondering who would be some of the best replacement players out there for next season? I don’t think the Canucks will bring him back with such a steep price tag and I am certain they will look to get younger as well.

  • DCR

    @DaNucklhead – the thing to remember is that Manny’s UFA after this season. Nobody’s going to be paying him $2.5M for next season unless he wins the Selke, Hart, and Conn Smythe trophies.

    Wherever he is, the chances approach unity that he will be making less money.

  • @David Johnson excuse me for messing up your name. Was obviously working fast (no excuse, just context). Great stuff by the way.

    @Cale I have a tough time seeing Malhotra leave Vancouver. Feel like he’ll stick around and get a serious haircut.

  • I don’t doubt that, but my question remains – who are the replacement players for Malhotra?

    Excellent faceoff man, excellent shutdown center (2010-11) and a player who will start almost every shift in the defensive zone but finish it with the puck moved up the ice in the offensive one, with the bonus of being able to score here and there. The other added bonus would be the player being younger.

    For the advanced stats guys – where would you look to find those players – do you start with Faceoff percentages? Zone starts/ends? QualComp?

    I haven’t been able to watch any games this season yet as I am currently in Israel, but since Malhotra is still on our 4th/shutdown/energy line it tells me he is still not taking a larger role from someone else. He was the third line center before the injury and I thought that was the best place for him. If the third line is more about offense than shutting down the opposition’s top lines and the fourth line is an energy line then when Kesler returns the defensive burden will once again fall on him – probably at the cost of his offense again. I would like to see a player who can take the heavy defensive shifts and free Kesler to be on a more offensive line.