Manny Malhotra

Vancouver Canucks officially confirm Manny Malhotra is cleared to play, listed as day-to-day

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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.

Matthews to sit out preseason tilt versus Sabres, as Maple Leafs give him ‘a little break’

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Maple Leafs play the Buffalo Sabres on Friday. But No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews won’t be in the lineup, according to multiple reports.

“Sooner or later, he’s going to get in, but not tonight,” said assistant coach Jim Hiller, as per the Toronto Sun.

“The lineups are day by day. They (World Cup players such as Matthews, Milan Michalek, Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk) went through a solid three weeks. It’s a little break, a little down time. There are tons of games coming. They’ll get a lot of ice time. They’ll get in shortly.”

(The report also notes that Matthews is not dealing with a health issue, which is obviously good news for the Leafs.)

On a night when the No. 2 overall selection Patrik Laine is slated to make his preseason debut for the Winnipeg Jets, fans wishing to see Matthews don a Maple Leafs jersey in his anticipated debut will have to wait.

Matthews played for Team North America at the World Cup held in Toronto. He had two goals and three points in three round robin games, but the young North American team was unable to advance to the semifinal round.

The Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens at home on Sunday.

McLellan: Maroon’s lower-body injury not considered serious

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It appears Patrick Maroon‘s injury from Wednesday’s preseason game against the Vancouver Canucks looked worse than it is.

The Edmonton Oilers forward was in obvious pain immediately after he went hard into the boards from an awkward hit delivered by James Sheppard just past the midway point of the third period. Maroon needed help to the bench and was unable to put much, if any, pressure on his left leg.

He left the game and didn’t return.

Good news, however, from the Oilers: Head coach Todd McLellan told reporters on Friday that the injury — lower body — is not serious, as per the team’s Twitter account.

According to Mark Spector of Sportsnet, the 28-year-old Maroon is expected to be ready for Edmonton’s season opener against the rival Calgary Flames on Oct. 12.

The Oilers acquired Maroon at last season’s trade deadline, a move that certainly added size and an element of grit to their group of forwards.

In 16 games with Edmonton, he scored eight goals and 14 points. In 56 games with Anaheim that same season, he registered only 13 points before the trade.

Patrik Laine to make highly anticipated preseason debut for Jets

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Patrik Laine gives an interview after being selected second by the Winnepeg Jets during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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Anticipation has been building since the Winnipeg Jets officially took Patrik Laine with the second overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft.

On Friday, Laine, the highly coveted Finnish forward, will make his preseason debut for the Jets when they play the Edmonton Oilers in Winnipeg, as the home fans get the chance to take in the occasion.

The Jets have done a nice job of amassing good young forwards in their organization. Laine, who has the gifts to be a prolific scorer in the NHL, is at the top of that prospect list.

Winnipeg’s roster tonight also includes forward prospects Kyle Connor, Nic Petan and Brandon Tanev, not to mention more NHL experienced forwards like Alex Burmistrov, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele.

Laine enters this season with high expectations placed on him from fans and media, after coming to the NHL following a standout career in Finland as a teenager. He’s aware of the expectations, but toned down the hype with the usual statements of just playing his game.

“Just be brave on the ice and show everybody I will earn my spot on the team,” he told reporters.

Laine has already seen game action this month. Not with the Jets, but with Finland’s entry at the World Cup of Hockey.

Following offseason knee surgery, Laine wasn’t happy with his performance in Finland’s first pre-tournament game. In three tournament games, Laine failed to register a point, despite a team-best 10 shots on goal, as Finland was quickly eliminated in the round robin.

Related:

Looking to make the leap: Patrik Laine

Murray: Ristolainen’s good-faith gesture unlikely to sway talks with Sabres

BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 22: Rasmus Ristolainen #55 of the Buffalo Sabres makes a pass during the game against the Detroit Red Wings on January 22, 2016 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray tells The Associated Press he doesn’t believe defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen‘s decision to join the team for practice without a contract will have any effect on thawing negotiations.

With a big laugh, Murray on Friday said the only way Ristolainen could speed up contract talks is if “he got all lovey-dovey” and elected to take the Sabres’ latest offer.

Ristolainen is a restricted free agent whose rights were retained by the Sabres in June. After representing Finland in the World Cup of Hockey, Ristolainen reported to the Sabres on Thursday in what was regarded as a sign of good faith.

Though he’s not allowed to play because he’s not under contract, Ristolainen is practicing with the team and also taking part in meetings. Ristolainen is not making himself available to reporters.

Murray says he didn’t see anything wrong with allowing Ristolainen to practice, saying he’d rather the player be in Buffalo than working out elsewhere.

Murray says the two sides are still negotiating.

In three seasons, Buffalo’s 2013 first-round draft pick has established himself as the Sabres’ top defenseman. Last year, Ristolainen led the team in averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time per game, and led Buffalo defensemen with 41 points (nine goals, 32 assists).