Photo credit: Globe and Mail
In the 20+ years I’ve been watching NHL hockey, I’ve hardly remembered a time when the balance of power has shifted as often and as sharply as it has in recent years. While there are constants like the Detroit Red Wings who seem to be in contention every year with their roster of ageless superstars and the San Jose Sharks who seem to be in the running every year in the regular season but run into a road block in the playoffs, teams usually don’t stay where they are very long. Look at the predicted powerhouses of next season such as the Los Angeles Kings or the surprisingly improved Buffalo Sabres. Los Angeles improved on a roster of budding young stars with the acquisition of Mike Richards, giving them one of the best 1-2 center combos in the NHL and the Sabres went out and spent a fortune on former Canuck Christian Ehrhoff as well as a bunch of reliable players with star potential in Ville Leino and Brad Boyes. Teams that were in the playoff hunt could fall out the next year. Look no further than the New Jersey Devils or Calgary Flames, who people forget were only 2 points back of the Canucks for the Northwest Division as recent as ’08-’09.
One of the keys to the Canucks season last year was that they finally got themselves a third line center in Manny Malhotra. No offense to our two previous third line centers in Kyle Wellwood or Ryan Johnson but Manny is a serious upgrade. Malhotra is what I like to think of as an “elite” bottom six forward. While he may not score as many points as the Sedins or other Art Ross competitors, Manny is about as good at what he does as anyone in the league. In the role of winning face-offs, playing a hard, physical defensive game and chipping in on offense as necessary, few do it better than Manny in the league today. If the Selke was actually for the NHL’s best defensive forward instead of it’s current implied definition of being awarded to the league’s best two-way player, Manny might be in consideration, not only because he gets more defensive responsibility than 2011 winner Ryan Kesler but because his presence allows Kesler to introduce goalies at the other end of the ice to his wrist shot more often. While Kes is certainly still near the top of the class in terms of defense in the league today, if we’re only considering keeping the puck out of your own net, I’d have to give the edge to the guy the Canucks trust every time to take the draw to start a penalty kill in their own end. Just like the Sedins’ offensive wizardry, Kesler’s never-say-die, all-out effort and Luongo’s cat-like reflexes, Manny’s solid, stalwart play on that third line makes the Canucks the team they are.
The competition will be heating up next year and while the Canucks have arguably gotten slightly weaker with the loss of Ehrhoff and Raffi Torres, if we’re going to make it back to another shot at Lord Stanley, the Canucks need Manny to maintain his high level of play. Yes, that is a lot to ask of a guy that’s coming off a horrific incident with his eye and while we’re all happy Manny has kept his sight, if he’s recovering and ready to play, we need him at his best. That means 60+% in the face-off circle and much of the same as last year. No other Canucks third line center has been able to maintain their performance level since the lockout. Ryan Johnson was a shotblocking beast in his first year with the Canucks and won more face-offs than he lost but injuries decimated him and he was barely noticeable in his second go. Wellwood had a rather decent debut despite the jokes about his weight and questionable work ethic. I still remember his unsuccessful last minute end-to-end rush that had me out of my seat and yelling “WHERE THE $#@* was THAT the whole game?!”. He showed flashes of brilliance and 27 points isn’t bad but his second year left much to be desired.
The fact that he’s got ties to our city along with his amazing play and the tragedy that could’ve cut his career short may have something to do with it but Vancouver has seriously embraced Malhotra as one of them and I don’t know if I’ve seen Canucks fans fall in love in a year since the first year Louie came to town and almost single-handedly took the Canucks to the playoffs. I could certainly understand if people take it easy on him since he’s exceeded expectations, coming back in the Stanley Cup Finals where we came up short by only a single game but we saw what the Canucks were without him. To be fair, by the end we were without a lot of people but a healthy Malhotra at the beginning could’ve made the difference. The same will go for the pre-playoffs as I’ll call the regular season from now on, since those 82 games don’t mean anything anymore. Especially with our entire second line likely to start the season on the sidelines, even more responsibility is going to fall to Malhotra.
No, he will probably not move to the second line and I’d expect Hodgson to be given a shot at some big time minutes but without Ryan Kesler, Manny will be leaned on even more for defense. It goes without saying that the Canucks won’t be very successful without the Sedins up front and Luongo guarding the rear but at this point, I would have to expect guys like that to bring their best to the ice every day but a team can’t just be about superstars and especially in the playoffs, it’s the supporting cast that push a great team into being a championship team.