In almost every playoff game, a player’s individual toughness emerges to a startling degree. Just look at Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos shaking off a puck to the face as an example that even the “pretty boys” fight through jarring pain.
Even with high expectations for their tolerance to pain, it’s still difficult to get jaded when hockey players keep topping themselves. Rumors were already circulating that Vancouver Canucks center Manny Malhotra was pushing toward a possible playoff comeback, but the team announced that he has officially been cleared to play. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said that Malhotra is day-to-day and would not discuss his lineup for Game 1 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. In other words, a Game 1 return isn’t guaranteed, but it remains a tantalizing possibility.
No doubt about it, Malhotra’s comeback would be one of the most unlikely in recent hockey history. There were many people who thought that Malhotra’s career – not just his regular season and playoffs – would end after taking a puck to the eye that required two surgeries.
Who knows how close Malhotra could be to the player he was during the 2010-11 season, but the two-way center could be a great asset for Vancouver in what should be a tight defensive series. He was actually my mid-season pick for the Frank Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward, a stance that probably left me alone among hockey writers. Still, when you look at Kent Wilson’s breakdown of Malhotra’s importance to the Canucks, it shows just how strong a player he really is/was.
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 New Jersey’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.
When you look at the success of strong puck possession teams like the Detroit Red Wings, it’s no coincidence that their systems operate more smoothly when they dominate in the faceoff circle. Malhotra is the kind of player who quietly makes the Canucks’ system work.
Since Rod Brind’amour retired, Malhotra and a few other players (such as Jarret Stoll) are among the truly “elite” guys when it comes to winning key draws. If Malhotra is reasonably healthy, he makes an already formidable Canucks team that much deeper down the middle. We’ll keep you updated if Vigneault reveals lineup information closer to the first puck drop on Wednesday.