Manny Malhotra doesn't score goals, but he's not expected to. Odd for a guy who plays so many minutes.

I really only have two observations from this week, and the one I’m going to discuss seems either pretty mundane or excessively political.

I’d like to start with a Vancouver beat-writer, actually, who criticized Manny Malhotra’s team-low minus-10 rating. Think about this, being a writer of a team, an expert who watches every single game and is in the locker-room occasionally, never having noticed that Malhotra takes on a different role than almost anybody in hockey. Criticizing Malhotra’s +/- rating is equivalent to criticizing Clay Matthews for being on the field for more touchdowns against and for; whether or not you believe that defensive zone starts have an effect on player production, you can certainly appreciate that Malhotra’s role. He starts at the defensive end more than any other player in hockey and takes the key face-offs.

Since Malhotra’s role is purely defensive, he should be out for a bunch goals against since there’s much, much less room for error than for Henrik Sedin or Ryan Kesler, who get a lot more offensive leeway thanks to the way the Canucks deploy their centre men. It’s not so much a secret on the blogosphere as to how notorious the effect is, but it’s pretty amazing that none of the writers who cover the team for a living have bothered to notice that Malhotra has a deeply-specialized role.

But he’s not really the only one. I looked at a few of the other players who have Manny Malhotra’s role. Zone starts are an interesting hockey statistic because we do quarrel on occasion about players who start 55% of their shifts in the offensive zone as opposed to 52%, but Malhotra is beyond that. From a numerical perspective, he has started 454 more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone, which has to contribute somewhat to his team-low +/- rating.

As for the rest of the league, there are a few players (listed below) who have a start rate that is almost as extreme as with what Malhotra had to work with last season. I checked all the +/- ratings of these players and, sure enough, they’re in the bottom third on their team as far as this useless, useless statistic goes.

Having a low +/- can be a product of different things. It can be due to variance contributing to a low goaltender save percentage when a player happens to be on the ice, or it can have to do with the way the player is utilized by his coach. “The Malhotra effect” per sé, can explain why certain players do worse relative to their teammates: they play defence and are counted on at a single end of the ice. I think that a lot of coaches will begin to catch onto this trend, as its gaining popularity in the NHL.

Using Behind The Net and adding up the defensive and offensive starts for every centreman in the league with a Corsi Rel QoC of over 0.200 (the best quality of competition metric we used) I found three players who are victims of the Malhotra Effect:

This is pretty much my favourite picture ever.

Jim Slater, Winnipeg

Winnipeg won a wild game against Washington last night on a third period game-winning goal by Dustin Byfuglien, but let’s not deny the contribution of the point-less (that sounds weird when you read it out) Jim Slater, who is the centreman in the league next to Malhotra in defensive zone starts. All-in-all, Slater, the centre on Winnipeg’s “GST” line with Tanner Glass and Chris Thorburn, has a 54.5% face-off percentage, 178 offensive zone starts and 437 on the defensive end, according to Behind The Net.

Last night against Washington, Slater saw nearly six minutes of action against Alex Ovechkin and, of Winnipeg’s 12 defensive zone face-offs at even strength, took eight of them, a team-high. You can’t tell me this isn’t by design.

Brian Boyle, New York Rangers

A lot of people credit Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonaugh for seeing the real tough minutes for the Rangers, which makes a lot of sense given their role, but from a forward perspective, Boyle is also forced into many tough situations as well. Boyle a +1 on a team that has a +39 goal differential and is fourth in the league in 5-on-5 scoring rate, has started a whopping 240 more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive (390 to 150).

Again, you can’t tell me that John Tortorella doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing with Brian Boyle. He’s won a more modest amount of face-offs, just 51.7%, but he’s a reason for New York’s league-low goals against rate (Not THE reason, but A reason).

Dave Bolland, Chicago Blackhawks

With Jonathan Toews out, the Blackhawks have had a difficulty putting the puck in the net, scoring just 20 goals at 5-on-5 in the 12 games since Toews left the lineup indefinitely. Nobody else has really picked up the slack, but Dave Bolland, who opened up space for Toews last season with his deployment at one end, hasn’t seen much of a change in his role, having been out on the ice for a team-high 91 of the team’s 186 defensive zone face-offs in that span.

Overall, Bolland is another victim of the Malhotra Effect. At minus-7 on his team, Bolland has started 362 shifts in the defensive zone compared to just 162 in the offensive zone.

So these are just three centremen who best emphasize the Malhotra Effect, and I’m betting that next year we’ll see a few more. I reckon about half the teams in the league really pay attention to their team’s zone starts, given the way player usage has changed over the last year, having seen the success the Vancouver Canucks had with Ryan Kesler once his role changed from being a defensive player to a more two-way guy.

Maybe the difference between 10 or 11 starts in a season won’t be tangibly noticeable, but even the most ardent skeptic of advanced hockey statistics can see that zone starts provide a wonderful picture into how players are used by their coaches.

Comments (9)

  1. A-MEN. Malhotra does yeoman’s work on that team.

  2. Another interesting “victim” of the Malhotra effect is Sami Pahlsson. Looking at his zone starts (30% off zone starts), which is by far the lowest of the Columbus centers. BUT he also was -6 when he was traded to Vancouver, tied for 3rd among Columbus forwards who actually played a decent amount of games. Pretty damn impressive when you look at his competition and how terrible the Blue Jackets are. And he was only dealt for a couple 4ths. Fantastic trade by Vancouver.

  3. It’s hard to criticize Malhotra for his +/- rating, except for the fact that he was a +9 last year on the same team and I’m guessing his d-zone start percentage is close to the same this season as it was last season. As Ben Kuzma stated in that tweet you linked, Malhotra’s is only winning 44% of his face-offs, which isn’t nearly good enough for someone that gets paid to win a large majority of the draws he takes. Clearly that’s having a negative impact on his +/- as well, so it’s not just the d-zone start percentage that’s responsible for his poor +/- stats this season.

    • Two things:

      1) Malhotra has won 59.2% of his defensive zone faceoffs this year

      2) Malhotra has been used even more extremely this season, as he has 75 ozone starts and 529 dzone starts this year, versus 155 ozone and 466 dzone last year.

  4. Seriously, thank you for writing this. I am a die hard Leaf fan, and I was getting tired of hearing the Kessel vs. Seguin debate about who is the better player/got the better end of the trade when people were throwing around the “Seguin is better because his plus/minus is better” earlier in the year.

  5. Great stuff Cam. Like you, I am shocked that the MSM continues to manufacture narratives by trotting out statistics that are ineffective indicators of player performance. And, as a Canucks fan, I can say that I absolutely love the way in which Manny has played his role excellently and never once complained about. The Canucks are fortunate – on many teams Malhotra would easily be a third line centre with more offensive zone responsibility.

  6. Rangers fan here, I believe the Rangers brass saw what Manny did for them in his time here, and it is currently a huge part of the team philosophy. Brian Boyle is basically the same player just bigger. We also have defensive forwards infused with every line but the top. Manny was great with the Rangers and really under appreciated by the rest of the league.

  7. I just wanted to mention as a vancouverite (and huge canucks fan), the media definitely have noticed the zone starts (especially during the run up to the 2010 playoffs when malhotra was out), and we have definitely learned to appreciate the Malhotra effect. Some writers even go as far to say that the zone starts are the reason for the sedins becoming art ross winners compared to their point per game pace of before.

  8. Cam, great post. I really enjoy when people can explain why a simple stat like +/- is relatively useless.

    I would also like to see someone develop a stat similar to PER in the NBA. This is a statistic that really accentuates a player’s contribution offensively even when they don’t get a point on the play.

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