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.
Sabres fans hoping Robin Lehner would return early from his high ankle sprain received some tough news on Tuesday — per ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, Lehner suffered a “little setback” in his recovery.
Lehner was hurt in Buffalo’s opening game of the year and, originally, slated to miss 6-10 weeks. Six weeks have now passed, but optimism he’d be able to return in the earlier part of the timeframe has been dashed — LeBrun says Lehner’s projected return is now for mid-to-late December.
(So, closer to the 10-week estimate.)
While it’s not great news for the Sabres, it’s a positive development for the club’s other Swedish netminder, Linus Ullmark.
Recalled from AHL Rochester shortly after Lehner got hurt, Ullmark is on a really nice run in November — just check his last five games played:
The last Lehner update from the Sabres came in early November, when head coach Dan Bylsma told the News his goalie was “doing really well,” but “not close yet to getting back on the ice.”
Well, this kind of seemed inevitable — there are now trade rumblings involving Columbus center Ryan Johansen.
This evening, TSN’s Darren Dreger revealed that teams have been calling Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen about the talented pivot, adding that one team classified Johansen as being “softly” in play.
More (transcribed from video):
“That doesn’t mean [Kekalainen] is calling teams, saying ‘what are you going to give me?’ However, when teams call, he’s not dismissing the interest. He is saying ‘well, what’s your offer?’
“What that tells you is there’s at least some interest in considering the trade of Ryan Johansen and, as we saw on the weekend, his minutes dropped, he was demoted to the fourth line — so if the right deal comes along, they’ll consider it.”
The incident Dreger referred to occurred during Sunday’s 5-3 loss to San Jose, in which head coach John Tortorealla limited Johansen to just 13:52 TOI — his lowest total of the season.
It’s the latest incident from what’s already been a tumultuous year; not long after getting hired, Tortorella told the reigning All-Star MVP he was out of shape.
Johnansen was then away from the team for a pair of games dealing with an undisclosed illness. During that absence, the Dispatch reported Johansen had been hospitalized this summer because of an accelerated heart rate.
All this, of course, came one year after an ugly contract dispute at the start of last season, during which the Jackets and Johansen’s representation engaged in a public spat before agreeing to a three-year, $12M deal.
One of the driving forces behind the NHL’s growth over the last decade is moving on.
John Collins, who’s served as the league’s chief operating officer for the last seven years, will be leaving his post to embark on a new business opportunity.
More, from the League:
Collins, who joined the NHL in November 2006, had been COO since August 2008.
“John leaves a lasting mark,” said Commissioner Bettman. “His energy, creativity and skill at building strategic partnerships helped drive significant revenue growth for our League. We are grateful for his many contributions and wish him the best in his new endeavors.”
Said Collins, “I’m grateful to Commissioner Bettman for his leadership and friendship over the past nine years. He had a vision for extending the reach of the NHL and supported us completely as we set out to make the game as big as it deserves to be.
“The NHL’s future is filled with promise and potential and I will admire and cheer the League’s successes to come on the global stage.”
Collins, 53, was regarded as one of main presences behind a number of the NHL’s most successful initiatives, including the Winter Classic and Stadium Series, the HBO 24/7 collaboration, the relaunched World Cup of Hockey, Canadian and American television deals and partnerships with companies like SAP, Adidas, Major League Baseball Advanced Media and GoPro.
During Collins’ tenure, the NHL was twice named “Sports League of the Year” by the SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily — once in 2011, and again in 2014.
Columbus will have some reinforcements up front when it takes on the Devils tomorrow in New Jersey.
Brandon Dubinsky, who’s missed the last six games with an elbow injury, and Alexander Wennberg — who’s also missed the last six games, but with a foot ailment — have both been activated from injured reserve, and should be available for selection on Wednesday.
It wasn’t all good news for the Jackets, though. Defenseman Cody Goloubef and right wing Rene Bourque were placed on IR.
The biggest return for Columbus is Dubinsky, who had four goals and 11 points in 16 games prior to getting hurt, while averaging nearly 19 minutes per night.
That said, getting Wennberg back is key as well; the former first-round pick has been plagued by injuries recently but showed well during his rookie campaign in ’14-15, with 20 points in 68 games.