BY THOMAS DRANCE
The news broke at Canucks practice on Thursday that the Vancouver Canucks will be placed on injured reserve and is likely to miss the rest of the season. Which has since been confirmed by the Canucks, but the reasonings of it have not. But, it is widely assumed that the injury sidelining Malhotra now is related to the eye injury he suffered when he was struck by the puck in the Spring of 2011.
Malhotra’s on-ice effectiveness had diminished since his return from that fearful, freak accident; but he was still a major contributor in a specialist role and in the faceoff circle in particular. In the short-term, Malhotra’s absence will be felt by the Canucks, which should be clear to anyone who has watched Andrew Ebbett kill penalties this season. Let’s look into this further.
The Canucks have consistently been a top-10 faceoff team at the NHL level during most of Mike Gillis’ tenure as General Manager. Since the team first acquired Malhotra in the summer of 2010, they’ve consistently been a top-5 faceoff team. That has changed somewhat this season, and through 12 games the Canucks are a slightly below average club in the face-off circle despite a noticeable improvement in Henrik Sedin’s winning percentage on draws.
Losing Manny Malhotra, who was well over 60 percent on nearly 100 face-offs in limited duty so far this season, is a blow for a Canucks team that is losing significantly more faceoffs than they have in the past. That said, with Ryan Kesler – a very steady face-off man who regularly comes away with the puck on 55% or more of his trips to the circle – returning to the lineup this weekend even possibly Friday against Dallas (Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks (-225, 5)), Malhotra’s loss won’t be as keenly felt as it might have been early on this season. Even so, with Jordan Schroeder struggling in the circle (as most undersized rookie pivots do) and Manny Malhotra out of the lineup indefinitely, it seems unlikely that the Canucks will find themselves in the top-five in the league in faceoff percentage this season.
Faceoffs are, in my humble opinion, over-rated as a determinative factor in hockey. Obviously for a puck possession team like the Canucks, controlling the puck off of faceoffs can give you an edge – but it’s important to remember that faceoff percentage isn’t “a silver bullet” on the penalty-kill and isn’t that closely correlated with winning hockey games (turns out scoring goals is way, way more important!). Still, the Canucks have clearly built a game-plan and a roster that can control the puck off of draws, and on this front Malhotra will be dearly missed.
In the 2009-10 season, the most recent season in which Malhotra wasn’t on the Canucks roster, the Canucks were a sub-average penalty-killing club. Since then, you may have guessed this, they’ve been top-five in the NHL. Now it’s not Malhotra’s presence alone that has helped improve the Canucks penalty-killing – bringing in Hamhuis and Ballard was key, as was the continued development of Jannik Hansen and Kevin Bieksa – but Manny Malhotra has been a key contributor to Vancouver’s steady short-handed unit for the past two seasons.
In both 2010-11 and 2011-12 Malhotra led all Canucks forwards in short-handed ice-time per game, which was true again up to this point in the lockout shortened 2013 season. Malhotra’s reliability, his dominance of the face-off circle and his intelligent gap-control and defensive coverage made him one of the league’s top-penalty killers. In his absence, Andrew Ebbett and Maxim Lapierre have struggled this season and though Kesler’s return will help on this front, you don’t really want Ryan Kesler – the guy who scored forty goals in a season not too long ago – playing three minutes short-handed on a nightly basis.
In the short term, I think we can expect the Canucks to roll two main penalty-killing units and a relief unit (that will rarely take short-handed starts in the defensive zone, and will probably include Dale Weise), but Ryan Kesler and Maxim Lapierre are going to have to pick up the slack in this area. This could be a difficult balancing act for Alain Vigneault, who will have to fight the competing impulses of “easing Ryan Kesler into the lineup” with “having your best two-way player out in critical short-handed situations.”
DEFENSIVE ZONE DRAWS
Pass it to Bulis labelled Manny Malhotra the enabler during the 2010-11 season, and that label has stuck. In fact, Malhotra very probably took the highest proportion of defensive zone to offensive zone draws in the history of the NHL in 2011-12. Because Malhotra was perpetually buried in his own end of the rink, doing the yeoman’s work to clear the puck and quickly change, players like Ryan Kesler, Cody Hodgson and Henrik Sedin were able to face a more favorable tilt to the ice-surface on a game to game basis.
Without Malhotra in the lineup, it’ll be very interesting to see how Alain Vigneault’s deployment schemes change (if indeed they do). I’d suspect that Jordan Schroeder and Henrik Sedin will see their deployment impacted minimally – their lines will continue to start most of the time in the offensive end – but Ryan Kesler may well start a lower-percentage of shifts in the offensive zone than he has since the 2009-10 season, while Maxim Lapierre will probably barely see the offensive end of the rink again. Unless the Canucks find another defensive center (or trust Jordan Schroeder in a defensively oriented role he’s probably not well suited to at this point in his career), Ryan Kesler is very probably going to be shouldering the sort of load that isn’t conducive to putting up a whole whack of points.