Manny Malhotra takes the shortest shifts in the NHL

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.

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16 comments

  1. Dave
    January 20, 2012

    Great point.

    I think part of the problem here is that most people are judging the Canucks players by the standards of other teams and that doesn’t work. Vigneault’s using his players in such unique and specialized roles that comparisons don’t work because there are no other players in those roles in the entire league.

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    • Zach Morris
      January 20, 2012

      If only the level headed fans of this blog were more numerous, perhaps we could put to rest the practice of judging the Canucks against the standards of other teams.
      It’s especially frustrating to hear the Canuck’s toughness measured against that of Boston.
      Pugilism and edginess is not us, you know?

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  2. MelT
    January 20, 2012

    It’s always interesting when you analyze parts of the game that aren’t clearly noticeable. Of course, Manny brings his great intelligence and discipline to the room as well, which we never get to see.
    I’m always a little put off by discussions of how much players get paid. Unless they can be traded, it’s a sunk cost and it’s not like the team can renegotiate or get a refund. It’s like anything we’ve purchased, we need to maximize the potential and not keep worrying about what we paid.

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  3. Chris
    January 20, 2012

    Very insightful article and a good read, thanks Daniel. And let’s not underestimate Manny’s value in the locker room: the guy is a universally liked, “glue” guy, the type successful teams always seem to have.

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  4. MJT
    January 20, 2012

    This is good stuff. Too bad the ‘fire AV’ wing of the mensa committee doesn’t read it. I think the Canuck coaching staff is easily top five in the NHL and perhaps even better.

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  5. Rituro
    January 20, 2012

    “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 lightbulb just materialized over my head. That makes a hell of a lot of sense, Messr. Wagner.

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  6. akidd
    January 20, 2012

    good article, daniel! i like your point about the 2nd period. not just sloppy changes but any change takes a few seconds for the new line to get into the game. long changes even more so. yup, it makes a lot of sense.

    funny how i’ve gotten used to the canucks short shifts. i watched a bit of a flames game a few days ago and couldn’t believe how long those guys lingered. if i’d have cared i’d have been yelling, “get off the ice iggy!” it seemed so obvious what an uphill struggle it was to haul the puck back up the ice and try to score after already being on for close to a minute and more so what a danger it would be to try to defend again after that.

    yup, am sold on the short shifts. it didn’t take long for ‘innovative’ to become ‘standard ‘ in my eyes. but after your insight maybe longer 2nd period shifts might be worth a try despite what might be a trickle-down energy-wise for the third.

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  7. Sarah
    January 20, 2012

    The Canucks didn’t skip a beat when Maholtra was injured last season. In fact, they got better. He can win 6 or 7% more faceoffs than most guys, but Malholtra’s nothing special.

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  8. I'mjustsuggesting
    January 20, 2012

    THANK YOU! This article is amazing, I truly hope is helps people understand Mannys important role on this team.

    You hear people complaining about Manny, his lack of production, his cap hit etc etc. But your article clearly defines his role on the Canucks, and how differently AV employs his lines (more than any other coach).

    Not only is Manny the ‘d-zone man’, but this is the lowest TOI he’s seen since before the lockout. This is also the only year he has NOT seen PP time since the lockout. He has great offensive numbers for a guy whose role has changed over the years.

    Luv you Manny!

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  9. starfish
    January 20, 2012

    Great article. I don’t understand the “longer changes” though. would someone explain it to me please?

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    • Chako Mika
      January 20, 2012

      The distance from the defensive zone to the bench is further (other side of center) in the second period, meaning there is a greater chance of an odd man rush in the event of a turnover, or sloppy change…

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    • John
      January 20, 2012

      On the bench, the defense always leaves the side of the bench closest to the goalie, and the offense leaves the side of the bench that’s further away.

      In the first and third periods, the bench is on the same side of the ice as the goalie. So if you’re looking at it on camera, the goalie mans the right net and the players are on the right bench.

      In the second period, the goalie mans the left net, but the players stay on the right bench, so the players are on the opposite side of the neutral zone from the goalie. That makes the changes longer for the forwards(who now change at the opposing blue line as opposed to the red line in Periods 1 and 3) and the defense(who now change at the red line as opposed to their own blue line in Periods 1 and 3).

      This makes changes longer by one-third of the neutral zone in the second period. Make sense?

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  10. tom selleck's moustache
    January 20, 2012

    I noticed this in the last game against the Kings, where Malhotra took, and won, a defensive zone draw, then, as soon as the puck was moved up ice into the neutral zone, skedaddled right off onto the bench to allow one of the second liners on with Kesler; his shift was maybe 15-20 seconds long. I remember it had reminded me that Team Canada did this exact same thing with Patrice Bergeron in 2010. I’m actually surprised more teams don’t do this type of thing.

    But I think it also speaks to the “Team First” attitude that Malhotra brings to the Canucks. His stat line is getting absolutely killed; but he doesn’t seem to care as long as it’s helping the team win. It’s pretty hard not to like the guy for it as it’s those type of support players that selflessly devote themselves to the dirty work that’s needed for team success.

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  11. starfish
    January 21, 2012

    Thanks Chako & John for the explanations. It certainly makes sense.

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  12. obituary mambo
    January 22, 2012

    Wonderful insight. I’m so glad I discovered this intelligent, thought provoking site. My only wish is that I had done so sooner. Not to be overlooked, your unique brand of humor is greatly appreciated as well. Thanks for all the awesomeness!

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  13. Tim
    January 22, 2012

    Excellent analysis. Again. Loving what you bring ’cause the rest of the sport writers do not provide this level of attention to detail. While I agree w what you’ve said here and I know that Malhotra’s vision hurts his game I feel he also lacks a certain hockey “sense”. He seems to be fighting the puck most of the time. Lastly, he frequently loses battles for the puck along the boards, but hey, I’m nitpicking. The worst they can be said is he’s overpaid

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