Replacing Malhotra’s Minutes

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Manny Malhotra’s eye injury is the kind of terrifying incident that makes fans of all stripes unite with concern for the player.  Incidents like this transcend hockey – the health and future of the player is the primary concern here, and I haven’t met anyone who disagrees.

However, there are tactical considerations to consider as well.  Malhotra, despite his status as a depth player, was a key forward for Vancouver. His faceoff prowess rightly gets a lot of attention (1261 draws taken, 61.7% winning percentage) but honestly it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Malhotra plays 12:39 per night at even-strength (seventh among forwards) and 2:45 on the penalty kill (first among forwards). He plays tough competition, often with less than stellar assistance.  He starts in his own end a whopping 75.0% of the time, allowing players like the Sedins to feast on offensive minutes.

He is the very definition of a tough minutes centre.

He won’t be easy to replace, as Alain Vigneault told reporters:

“He’s not easy to replace but we’ll try to figure something out,” Vigneault said. “I haven’t made up my mind (on how). There’s a lot of things going on up there (pointing at brain). French guy trying to figure things out.”

Against the Phoenix Coyotes on Friday, we got a first look at how the Canucks will adjust to life without Malhotra. Let’s compare that game to the last one Malhotra was healthy in – Vancouver’s March 14 bout with Minnesota. Let’s start with the faceoff data.

March 14 vs. Minnesota

  • Ryan Kesler: 10/14 (71%)
  • Henrik Sedin: 5/13 (38%)
  • Manny Malhotra: 9/12 (75%)
  • Maxim Lapierre: 2/9 (22%)

March 18 vs. Phoenix

  • Ryan Kesler: 11/25 (44%)
  • Henrik Sedin: 9/16 (56%)
  • Maxim Lapierre: 7/11 (64%)
  • Chris Higgins/Mason Raymond: 2/7 (29%)

In the faceoff circle, Alain Vigneault decided to go in a biblical direction – to him that has, more will be given.  Sedin and Lapierre saw small increases in face-offs, while Higgins and Raymond filled in at times, but Ryan Kesler’s duties nearly doubled.

What about ice-time on the penalty kill? Against Minnesota, four key forwards got a ton of minutes: Kesler, Malhotra, and wingers Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen, with Maxim Lapierre and Mason Raymond also getting a couple of shifts. The game against Phoenix saw more time shorthanded, but it also saw a more even distribution of the minutes: five of the six forwards from the game against Minnesota got heavy minutes, and Malhotra’s spot in the rotation was taken over by Chris Higgins, who had not seen a second of penalty-killing ice-time against the Wild.

Barring a call-up of a guy like Cody Hodgson, I’d imagine what we’ll see is Kesler getting nastier minutes at even-strength. He was already taking on fairly extensive duties, but the fact is that it would be a stretch for Lapierre to fill the role Malhotra filled, and Kesler is much more capable of doing so.  I don’t know if that’s the way I’d do it; the Canucks depth at centre has gone from being a major strength to not that great if Malhotra’s out for any length of time, and in a playoff series against the best in the West that could cost them.

Hodgson’s certainly making a case for a call-up; since being sent down he’s recorded four goals and four assists in 10 games with Manitoba.  But then again, it seems unlikely that he would be able to fill Malhotra’s role any better than Lapierre. For the near future, it looks like Ryan Kesler’s just going to be asked to do more.