Stanley Cup Finals: How Manny Malhotra's Return Will Boost the Vancouver Canucks
It is official. On Saturday May 28, a mere four days before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, Manny Malhotra received medical clearance to play.
Malhotra suffered a horrific eye injury on March 16, as a puck ricocheted off his stick and into his left eye. He immediately left the ice, blood streaming down his face.
Malhotra would have surgery on the eye that very night, and then a second procedure by specialists in New York on March 29. At the time, there was a real concern that he would lose the eye, or suffer permanent blindness.
The question wasn't when Manny would return to playing hockey, it was if he could return at all.
Now, less than three months later, Malhotra will be suiting up for the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Vancouver Canucks have gotten along fine without Malhota on the ice—after all, they are in the Stanley Cup Finals. But he brings a skill set that would greatly help the team raise the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
First, Malhotra is one of the NHL's premier faceoff specialists. He was second overall in the NHL with a 61.7 percent record during the regular season.
Also, Malhotra is a left-handed shot. This allows the Canucks to put out either Malhotra or Ryan Kesler, a right-handed shot, out for faceoffs on their strong side.
Even if Manny isn't up to his usual standards for faceoffs, he would likely be better than many of the Canucks centres. Ryan Kesler is a decent 54.7 percent, and Maxim Lapierre has been holding his own with 50.8 percent. Henrik Sedin, however, is a meagre 46.8 percent in the circle.
Second, Malhotra's ability to take key defensive zone faceoffs, and win them consistently, will allow Ryan Kesler to focus more of his energy on scoring.
Kesler was forced to take over Malhotra's defensive duties when he was injured, and it affected his scoring at even strength.
Kesler was a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, but when tasked with shutting down Jonathan Toews or Joe Thornton, his own scoring dropped.
It isn't a surprise that when Kesler didn't have a big-name forward to hold in check during the Nashville series, he exploded offensively.
If Manny can take some of the defensive pressure off of Kesler, even a little bit, that will help the Canucks balance out their attack.
Third, Manny's return will help the penalty kill.
In the regular season, the Canucks were 85.6 percent on the penalty kill. In the playoffs, they dropped to a pedestrian 80.6 percent.
Part of this drop can be attributed to the better quality of opponents during the playoffs.
But part of it is that the Canucks have been missing Manny's ability to cleanly win draws for easy clearing attempts, thereby killing 20 seconds of the clock every draw.
Fourth, Malhotra's return will stabilize the Canucks' fourth line. The Canucks have made it through the playoffs with a revolving door at the fourth-line centre position.
AHL journeyman Alex Bolduc and rookie Cody Hodgson alternated as the fourth-line centre during the Western Conference Finals, and their numbers are underwhelming.
Bolduc averaged 4:38 of ice time and won 50.0 percent of his draws.
Hodgson averaged slightly more ice time with 6:45, but his faceoff percentage was only 46.9 percent.
It isn't reasonable to expect Malhotra to step back into his 15-minute-a-night role on the third line and penalty killing units after such a long injury.
But it isn't unreasonable to expect that he could fill the six minutes that Bolduc and Hodgson are averaging, and do it with better stats while also contributing some strategic faceoffs to the penalty kill.
In any case, Maxim Lapierre has stepped up to take over the third-line role with Malhotra's old linemates in Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen, so it isn't likely Alain Vigneault will mess with that chemistry.
What will likely happen is that Malhotra will centre Tanner Glass on his left wing, and either Victor Oreskovich or Cody Hodgson on the right wing.
Hodgson is a natural centre, but he has played wing before. And Vigneault will probably want to have five centres on the roster just in case something goes wrong.
Fifth, Malhotra is a leader on this team. From the moment he signed with Vancouver last summer, he has stepped up in that regard.
Whether it was leading practices for the returning players prior to training camp, wearing an A during the regular season or studying video and running drills during the playoffs while he was injured, Malhotra has taken an active hand in the team's leadership.
Having another calm and stabilizing leader return to the ice can only be a good thing for the Canucks heading into the emotional games of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Lastly, the emotional boost the Canucks will get from Manny's return can't be underestimated. Aside from his teammates being happy for him, the Canucks will also get a rise from the crowd's energy.
I guarantee the minute he steps out on the ice for the warm up, there will be a standing ovation, and again when he takes his first shift.
If there are any doubts what Manny means to the Canucks, and what his return would mean to fans, look at this video of Malhotra in street clothes helping Henrik Sedin accept the President's Trophy.
Now imagine that reaction if it was Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, rather than Game 81 of the regular season.
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