The injury to Manny Malhotra is first and foremost a terrible event for he and his family, and we all certainly hope for a quick and complete recovery for his sake. But from a hockey standpoint, it presents a very serious challenge to the Canucks as well.
For one thing, it’s fair to say that stats in the faceoff circle are a concern. Though maybe help could come from an unexpected source? Gordon McIntyre at The Province finds a willing ego to step up to tackle the problem:
“We’re deep on defence,” Bieksa said. “I don’t know how deep we are at centre. I just beat half the forwards out there on faceoffs after practice.”
Shudder. (But he’s kidding. You hope.) But then again, who is going to fill Malhotra’s skates?
No doubt, the team has high hopes for Chris Higgins, but he’s a career-winger not a center, and as McIntyre notes in the article above, Alain Vigneault very conspicuously avoided praising Higgins’ faceoff skills yesterday. We can probably assume Chris isn’t the new magic man of the faceoff circle.
But really, the loss of Malhotra is a far bigger loss than just the faceoff circle, despite the current talking points.
Malhotra and his line are arguably the best third line in hockey (I said “arguably”, please note; don’t freak out). When they’re on the ice, Malhotra, Raffi Torres, Jannik Hansen are one very tough line to play against, shutting down some of the best in the game on a regular basis. For a team like Vancouver, where “just a 1-line team” and (on good days) “just a 2-line team” have been the knocks on them for years, a third line this good is a monster asset they’ve not often enjoyed. From Malhotra’s faceoff skills, to the line’s overall chemistry, that’s going to be near-impossible to replace.
Higgins will get his chance. Maybe someone else in Manitoba? But whomever ends up in there, it’s going to be a very different line. And my bet: not nearly as effective as it’s been to this point.
One fan said to me today that the loss of Malhotra—and the potential shakeup it creates—is enough for him to go from believing the Canucks might be favorites in these playoffs, to being just another “very, very good” team.
His point wasn’t to imply that Malhotra was more important than the stars of the team… only that this Canucks team is a well-oiled machine. What happens when one of the parts falls off a well-oiled machine?
They’re still going to win a lot of games, and they may even adapt to this setback without much of an interruption… but on their road to win a Stanley Cup, I’m guessing the Canucks themselves aren’t taking this lightly.
From Kevin Bieksa on a more serious note yesterday:
“You could even call him our most valuable player for the season. With all the things he does, he’s a leader in the dressing room and off the ice, and on the ice with faceoffs and penalty kill, and he’s a voice on the bench. He does a lot things, but I think first and foremost we hope he’s okay heath-wise and he has a full recovery.”