Canucks fans got both good and bad news today, both revolving around the team’s centres. The bad news came first, and it was devastating: Manny Malhotra was placed on Injured Reserve, with the announcement that he’s expected to miss the rest of the season. Malhotra has long been one of my favourite players on the Canucks, taking on the thankless job of enabling the Canucks’ offence by starting predominantly in the defensive zone, winning faceoffs, clearing the puck, and getting off the ice.
His two-way ability was clearly diminished after his devastating eye injury, but he was still effective in the faceoff circle and was among the league leaders, winning 65.3% of his draws. Losing him from the lineup significantly impacts the Canucks’ depth at centre.
Fortunately, there was some good news to soften the blow. After practice, Ryan Kesler was coy with the media about how close he was to returning to action. Alain Vigneault, on the other hand, didn’t beat around the bush, saying, “He’s been medically cleared to play and all indications are he’s ready to go.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that the two have disagreed about Kesler’s timeline for a return to action. Throughout the lockout, Kesler’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, frequently clashed in the media with Mike Gillis and Alain Vigneault. The Canucks’ organization would sound optimistic, saying that Kesler was ahead of schedule and also made of rainbows, while Overhardt spouted prophecies of doom and gloom, suggesting that Kesler’s arm was two seconds away from jumping out of its socket and making a break for it. To hear Overhardt tell it, Kesler had bonus eruptus.
It looks like Kesler is actually ready to return, however, and may do so as soon as this Friday’s game against the Dallas Stars. He didn’t just take part in line drills in practice: he was matched with Chris Higgins and Zack Kassian, a line that Vigneault indicated he was planning on using. He also skated on the first powerplay unit in practice.
Vigneault suggested that he would limit Kesler’s minutes, but if he’s on the second line, first powerplay unit, and also gets some time on the penalty kill, that seems unlikely. With Malhotra done for the season, it will be even more difficult, as Vigneault will need to use Kesler in more defensive zone situations and for key faceoffs.
Kesler’s return is perfectly timed, which makes me wonder if Mike Gillis knew he would be returning this weekend when he approached Malhotra about going on Injured Reserve. Gillis said in a press conference today that he “took the decision from [Malhotra]” as he was concerned about his long-term health.
Removing Malhotra from the lineup was apparently discussed during the off-season, but Malhotra, who is about as determined as they come, wanted to return and convinced Gillis that he could improve. I have to wonder if the Canucks’ allowed him to start the season because Kesler was not ready to go and wanted to see if Malhotra would be able to play with risking further injury. If so, it worked. Malhotra was effective in limited minutes and bridged the gap until Kesler came back.
But Malhotra didn’t improve enough to alleviate Gillis’s concerns. “I agreed that he could have the summer to train and I was going to give him a period of time this year and if things didn’t change that I was going to have this conversation with him,” Gillis said, “I observed and watched and I didn’t feel there had been a change and I felt he was at risk.” That isn’t to say that the Canucks forced Malhotra out; it appears that this was a mutual decision, but one that Malhotra wanted to put off as long as possible, which is completely understandable.
Tags: Manny Malhotra, Ryan Kesler