Did Cody Hodgson take Manny Malhotra’s job? Mark Spector thinks so; Jonathan Willis does not

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ve likely figured out by now that Daniel is far more of an advanced stats guy than I am. That said, while I may not be a massive fan of tables and math, I’m still of the mind that it’s absolutely vital to pay attention to a few of the underlying numbers, especially in regards to the Canucks. Otherwise, you run the risk of coming to some spotty conclusions.

If you’re not following Alain Vigneault’s deployment strategies, for instance, you’re simply not getting the full picture. No NHL head coach pays more attention to zone starts, and it informs every aspect of his players’ statistical production. In Manny Malhotra’s case especially, if you understand his role, you’ll discover that his scoring and plus/minus stats border on completely irrelevant.

If you were only looking at Malhotra’s basic numbers, it would be reasonable to make the conclusion that Sportnet’s Mark Spector made on Friday, when he wrote the following:

You have to believe GM Mike Gillis would move Manny Malhotra, whose job has been claimed by Cody Hodgson. But with 13 points and a minus-7 this season, we are sad to come to the accepted conclusion that Malhotra’s game has simply not returned in whole after the serious eye injury he suffered last season.

While there are elements of this paragraph with which I agree (I’ll get to that), there are also elements that show a misunderstanding of how Hodgson and Malhotra are deployed.

We’ve gone into this in more detail here, here and here, but here’s a cursory rundown: Malhotra starts almost exclusively in the defensive zone, even moreso than he did last year, when he started there more often than any other NHLer. His role is defensive-minded in a way no other player’s is, and it’s not just his zone starts that show this: it’s also his average shift length, which is the shortest in the NHL. Basically, Manny is counted on to win the draw in the defensive zone (both at even-strength and on the penalty kill), move the puck towards the offensive zone, and get off the ice. That’s it.

You can see why a poor plus/minus and a lack of offensive production is something of a given. His chances of being on the ice for a Canuck goal are slim.

Hodgson, on the other hand, struggles with faceoffs and isn’t yet trusted with tough defensive assignments. But clearly he can score. Thus, he starts mainly in the neutral zone, on the fly or, if he’s on the powerplay or the top two lines are tired, in the offensive zone.

Now, in the broadest sense, Cody has indeed taken Manny’s job. Malhotra was the third line centre last year and Hodgson has stepped into that spot this year. At the bare bones level, that’s a truism. But Hodgson has not, in any way, shape, or form, stepped into Malhotra’s role. He doesn’t even touch it, as Jonathan Willis explains:

Manny Malhotra is a defensive-zone specialist at even-strength, a penalty-killing specialist, and one of the league’s greatest faceoff men. He has supposedly lost his job taking defensive zone draws, killing penalties and winning faceoffs to Cody Hodgson, who a) doesn’t take defensive zone draws b) doesn’t kill penalties and c) doesn’t win faceoffs. They aren’t remotely comparable players. They’re doing entirely different things.

All that said, Malhotra had a similar role last year from the third line, but because the Canucks were only three-deep up the middle, he occasionally saw O-zone time and was counted to pitch in offensively. He has taken a step back this year in terms of his ability to do so, but it hardly matters. The emergence of Hodgson, a far superior offensive player, has effectively allowed Alain Vigneault to split Malhotra’s role from last year in half, strengthening both aspects.

In short, the two centres aren’t really in competition at all — they complement each other. Malhotra is a defensive specialist. Hodgson is, at this point, offense only.

So has Hodgson takes Malhotra’s job? Yes and no — he’s only taken the offensive part of it.

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30 comments

  1. BeCanucks
    January 30, 2012

    Absolutely, which means JUST NO WAY we get rid of the defensive part of the job…

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  2. Yuri Kaufman
    January 30, 2012

    Fully agree, as almost always, with you. I thought Manny was very strong in the pivotal game in Boston, playing good minutes too. The question for me is when we play Chicago in the second round of the playoffs, who’s going to play against Toews in Chicago? Because right now, I believe, he’d take The Silent G apart on his lack of defensive awareness.

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    • yobbei
      January 30, 2012

      It will be the line of Malhotra, Lapierre and Moen. ;-)

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      • Harrison Mooney
        January 30, 2012

        Not to mention a steady diet of Kesler, Booth and Higgins, who drive possession ridiculously well and are very good defensively. Booth’s really come around in this regard.

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        • khr
          January 30, 2012

          One thing to note about Booth too, his +/- is even since he got to the Cancucks. His -6 came from Florida.

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    • Dave Robinson (@dcrwrites)
      January 30, 2012

      I think we’re going to see two lines going up against Captain Serious: the Kesler line when they shift on the fly or in the offensive or neutral zones – and Malhotra’s line for defensive zone starts. This leaves Henrik and Cody free to handle the offense, and forces Toews and co. to keep an eye on defense whenever they’re outside the Canucks’ zone due to Kes and co.

      It’s not going to be a simple line against line matchup – Coach V doesn’t play that game. He’s going to consider both the score and where on the ice the players are just as much as who’s on the ice.

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  3. yobbei
    January 30, 2012

    I just want to thank Harrison and the rest of the gang at PITB for writing the most absolutely kick ass hockey blog. You have educated a lot of us how to look at the game differently.

    Couldn’t agree more, Malhotra’s stat line is completely irrelevant. His role is kinda like a punter in football. Get the puck deep and get the hell out.

    It also shows you how the Canucks players are so selfless. I bet you Malhotra’s agent is not happy with the role that his client has on this team.

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    • Timmy Wong
      February 2, 2012

      I’m sure Manny’s agent won’t mind when he gets to use “Stanley Cup winner” as a bargaining tool ;)

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  4. Nick
    January 30, 2012

    Spector’s take is yet another example of how many of the hockey media members do only a cursory job of analyzing a team. Bob McKenzie and a few others make it a point of pride to really know what is happening with each team, but many others who are Ontario-based don’t bother. Many of these “experts” (e.g., Nick Kypreos, Craig Simpson, Don Cherry) know less about teams they cover than the fans, and you have to wonder what these guys do all day.

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  5. Nick
    January 30, 2012

    Coho was a stellar faceoff man in junior. It’s only a matter of time before he figures it out here, and is good enough to earn AV’s trust for draws in the defensive zone. I sure the hope the kid spends the off season working hard on his skating speed.

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    • Mack
      January 30, 2012

      Yeah, I really think he’s gonna develop into a very good two-way centre. He was voted smartest player in the OHL, among other things, in back to back years and it’s hard to see that intellect just disappearing. I’ve noticed a big improvement since October in his play and strength along the boards, and he’s only going to get better in his own end. I’ll be excited to see what a hard summer’s worth of training with Gary Roberts does for him.

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  6. Chris
    January 30, 2012

    I wonder if Sportsnet is ready to move Mark Spector, whose job has been made superfluous by the oversaturation of incompetent blowhards in the NHL media circle.

    Trade proposal
    To TSN: Mark Spector
    To Sportsnet: a tube of Pierre McGuire’s leftover scalp wax

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  7. Nero
    January 30, 2012

    Thanks for providing rare insight. Too bad we can’t get this sort of analysis from all the usual hockey writers.

    All we get is hearsay, rumors and “hair on fire” pieces.

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  8. Dawg
    January 30, 2012

    I can still see gillis moving manny if it’s possible. 2.5 mill per is a bit hefty for a guy who’s main job is faceoffs

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    • BedBeats
      January 30, 2012

      Pretty safe to say that no GM in his right mind would ever move a face-off specialist. Not to mention that would be just an unmitigated disaster to lose any kind of depth at center.

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  9. SteveB
    January 30, 2012

    “Did Cody Hodgson take Manny Malhotra’s job? Mark Spector thinks so; Jonathan Willis does not”

    By the same spotty logic, Jonathon Willis has taken Mark Spector’s job, by being a better writer.

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    • Raj
      January 30, 2012

      If only it worked that way, Mooney and Wagner would be working for someting alot bigger than the vancouver sun.

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  10. BedBeats
    January 30, 2012

    Manny helming the 4th linhe truly gives what this team was searching for all last season….the ability to roll 4 lines. Typically folks think of the 3rd line as the shutdown line…so its to the coaching staff’s advantage to keep the opposition a bit unsteady with who they deploy against any Canucks line.

    It is the best problem the Canucks have ever had…maybe next to having a goalie tandem.

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  11. strukkingfuggle
    January 30, 2012

    Well written

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  12. BS
    January 30, 2012

    Manny makes a lot of money for a face off guy. Some nights he is better than others but generally not very impressed with his play. Despite what happened in Boston a few weeks ago toughness is still lacking. If they can move Manny for a bunch of grit then good move.

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    • BedBeats
      January 30, 2012

      You never can have enough quality centermen. A shame you are on the “Canucks need toughness etc…” train.

      It is a manufactured non-issue. And it would be absolutely silly to trade off a big part of our defensive make-up.

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    • foobarbear
      January 31, 2012

      thanks for stopping by, mark!

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  13. sarah
    January 30, 2012

    What sort of weight does the team give to leadership? Obviously it would be tough to compare Malhotra and Cody on an intangible like this. I have no problem seeing Cody as a leader on the team on year, but as a 21-year-old rookie, he’s not going to bring that same element in the way Malhotra does now.

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    • Jason
      January 30, 2012

      Very true. In a surprisingly candid moment, Vigneault said earlier in the year that Manny was playing too poorly for the 3rd line, but that he more than made up for this with his leadership in the locker room.

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  14. Not important
    January 30, 2012

    Somewhere a hydrolic pop tart went “baaaaaaaaaam” to Spector

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  15. bruno
    January 31, 2012

    He didn’t take the job . He stole it.

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  16. Trevor
    January 31, 2012

    The zone start stats are excellent in this situation. Want to know who has the highest offensive zone starts in the league? #1-3 are Daniel, Henrik and Burrows. How about the bottom? #1-4 are Malhotra, Lapierre, Weise and Volpatti. That’s in all the NHL, and the next closest player with the least amount of O-zone starts is Brian Boyle with almost 30% of his starts in the O-zone. Manny has 13% of his there.

    The other part I like about our 4th line (despite some more toughness being ideal, but I think that’s perhaps better suited to the 3rd with someone who can actually play a bit too) if not just where they start their shift, but where they end it. As Mooney mentioned, Malhotra’s job is to get it out of our end and change. Of all his shifts, he ends up in the offensive zone 39% of the time. That’s an increase of 26. The difference in zone starts and finishes for the rest of the fourth liners? Lapierre: +26.8 (17/43.8) Weise: +28.8 (19.5/48.3) Volpatti: +25.5 (21.3/46.8)

    Hard to say just how good that is without a comparison, so let’s look at some other NHL’ers people would love to have on their team:
    Brian Boyle: +16.3 (28.7/45)
    Samuel Pahlsson: +14.1 (30/44.1)
    Derek Dorsett: +12.5 (31.5/44)
    Victor Hedman: +11.4 (35.4/46.8)
    Dave Bolland: +10.8 (34.5/45.3)

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    • Trevor
      January 31, 2012

      That should be a wake up call for people that don’t think Gillis looks at advanced stats or that Vigneault is a bad coach, when in fact both are quite adept at what they do and have a very definite plan in mind.

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  17. Jymn
    January 31, 2012

    Harrison and all Hodgson doubters. Dudes, did you just see that breakaway goal? C’mon, you guys are way off base. He is not going to be just good, he’s going to be great. You really should go back and review those 2009 Jr. world games. Hodgson ruled those games. No flash. Just patience, ‘ice sight’ and a monster shot. He didn’t have that in 2009. The imagination staggers.

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    • Harrison Mooney
      January 31, 2012

      Whoa, whoa, whoa. We are in no way Hodgson doubters. He’s amazing. Whatever gave you the impression we didn’t like him?

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