Few seem to understand the value that Manny Malhotra brings to the Canucks. The Vancouver Sun’s own Fan Attic, for instance, recently argued that Malhotra is paid too much for his role as a fourth-line centre, noting his lack of point production, his minus-6 plus/minus, and his lack of hits.
Unfortunately, this fails to really account for what Malhotra contributes to the Canucks. He is certainly being paid more than the average fourth-line centre, but this is because he isn’t an average fourth-line centre. The way that he is used on the ice is essentially unprecedented in the NHL and is a key reason the Canucks are successful as a team.
It is certainly true that Malhotra has not provided much in the way of offense. It’s also true that his minus-6 rating is the lowest on the team. What’s missing is context.
Malhotra starts the vast majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, more than any other player in the NHL. He has started in the offensive zone just 55 times this season at even-strength, which is just over once per game. In comparison, he has started in the defensive zone 349 times at even-strength. This is basically unheard of. Add in his role on the penalty kill, where he leads all Canucks forwards in icetime, and you have a guy who doesn’t see the offensive zone very often.
“A big part of my role is just taking those defensive zone draws and being solid in the d-zone whenever those opportunities are there, a lot of PK time too,” Malhotra said. “So obviously we’re starting in our own end, but it’s a welcome challenge, I enjoy it.”
Malhotra is committed to his role, and he knows the parameters of it as well, which is why his average shift length is just 35 seconds. Among players who have played in at least 10 games, that’s the shortest average shift length in the NHL. When Malhotra is on the ice, his job is simple: gain possession of the puck in the defensive zone, usually by winning a faceoff, get the puck out, then get off the ice. His job is not to transition the puck into the offensive zone and create scoring chances.
Because he starts more often in the defensive zone and takes shorter shifts than any other player in the league, he has one of the toughest jobs in the NHL. It’s an important challenge.
The Canucks have the luxury of making their fourth line their checking line and employing not one, but two checking line centres. Both Malhotra and Maxim Lapierre, who has similar though less extreme zone starts and shift lengths, are capable of being third-line centres, but they are more useful on the fourth line.
With the emergence of Hodgson as a scoring threat, the Canucks are able to ice three scoring lines, rather than the more typical two. With Malhotra relied upon for the bulk of the defensive zone faceoffs and shifts, the other three lines start more frequently in the neutral or offensive zone. The biggest beneficiaries of this are the Sedins and Burrows, who start more often in the offensive zone than any other players in the league, but there’s a trickle-up effect to all three scoring lines.
I have called this enabling. Malhotra enables the rest of the team to focus more on offence than defence. His short shifts allow the rest of the team to get on the ice more often in the offensive zone.
As a whole, the Canucks take shorter shifts than all other teams in the NHL save the St. Louis Blues, and it’s mainly because of these well-defined roles. The fourth line takes the defensive zone shifts then gets off the ice. The Sedin line takes the offensive zone shifts then gets off the ice, while the Kesler line takes whatever offensive zone shifts are remaining as well as a share of the defensive zone duties. Hodgson’s line starts mainly in the neutral zone, protected from defensive zone duty by the fourth line, but not as offensively explosive as the top-two lines. Each line, once they’ve done their job, gets off the ice as soon as possible.
This focus on short shifts is one of the reasons the Canucks are able to play such an up-tempo style of hockey as they constantly attempt to roll their lines and get fresh legs on the ice, but it may have its downside. The Canucks’ struggles in the second period are well known and it makes me wonder if the longer change combined with the shorter shift lengths leads to trouble.
A sloppy line change can lead to odd-man rushes going the other way and the longer change in the second period could contribute to this. With the Canucks changing more often than other teams, this problem could come up more frequently. It’s something to keep an eye on.
In the meantime, hopefully this helps people understand the value that Malhotra brings to the Canucks. No, he’s not going to score a lot of goals, but the way he is used puts the rest of the team in a better position to do so. While it’s certainly possible that he is still overpaid for his role, if you don’t actually understand the role he plays you cannot make that judgement.Tags: Canucks, Manny Malhotra, Statistics, Stats