By Stu Hackel
The initial concern for Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra, who suffered a serious eye injury on Wednesday, is not for this season or even his career, but for his future. Damage to one’s eyesight can be a life-altering experience.
The second concern is for all NHL players, because risking their careers and their eyesight by not wearing visors seems foolhardy.
As for the first-overall-in-the-NHL Canucks, losing Malhotra may force their biggest injury test of the season — and they’ve had a few. Third line center being out indefinitely will rob them of their top face-off man and one of the best in the game. Malhotra’s 61.7 percent success rate currently ranks second in face-off winning percentage to the Devils ‘David Steckel (63). Blocking shots and breaking up plays, Malhotra also a main Manny on the Canucks’ penalty-kill, which also ranks second in the league. Last season, the Canucks’ PK ranked 18th. Special teams play is a key to success in the playoffs and Malhotra’s expertise would be greatly missed if he cannot return.
In his first season as a Canuck, Malhotra, 30, brought the weight of his 12-year NHL career to bear on a club that arguably has given him his first chance to go to the Stanley Cup Final.
“Malhotra has been an exceptional player for Vancouver, making an impact on the ice with his versatility and faceoff superiority, and off of it with his leadership and professionalism,” writes Iain MacIntyre of The Vancouver Sun. “He is more valuable than his modest job description suggests and the Canucks are better when Malhotra plays.”
It’s not hard to get a sense of that leadership when you watch this clip of Malhotra speaking to the media after the Canucks’ game on Monday, a 4-2 win over the Wild that was really a one-goal deal until Ryan Kesler polished things off with an empty-net tally in the last minute. The Canucks had to kill off two power plays in the final five minutes and Malhotra spoke of the need for his team to play with more discipline when protecting a lead.
“Well-liked and well-respected, Malhotra will be missed, and missed tremendously,” wrote Jason Botchford in The Vancovuer Province. “He fit in with the Canucks this year spectacularly fast. He ran Vancouver’s summer scrimmages from the day he arrived. He spoke his mind and earned an ‘A’ on his jersey. All of this before he hit the ice in meaningful regular season games, where he proved to be the Canucks most-impactful offseason addition.”
Malhotra was injured early in Wednesday’s game against the Avalanche when a puck deflected off the stick of the Avs’ Erik Johnson and hit him in the left eye. He underwent a preliminary surgical procedure that night to drain fluid from the eye and, due to swelling at this point, it’s too soon to tell the extent of the injury or how long he might be out of the lineup. Botchford reported that Malhotra did not break his orbital bone, but suffered extensive bleeding.
Drafted seventh overall by the Rangers in 1998, Malhotra was miscast in New York, where more offense was demanded of him. He was shipped to Dallas and then Columbus, where his excellence as a checking center and faceoff specialist were recognized by coach Ken Hitchcock. It’s probably no coincidence that Malhotra was part of the only Blue Jackets team (2008-09) to ever make the playoffs, as Hitchcock used him an average of 18 minutes per game. He signed as a free agent with the Sharks for the 2009-10 season and was a key part of their playoff run to the conference championship round.
“Many criticized the Canucks when they signed Malhotra to a three-year, $7.5 million contract, accusing them of overpaying,” writes Botchford. “But if you were to make a list of players the team would have the most trouble replacing, Malhotra would be fourth, behind only the Sedins and Kesler.”
Any team that has Stanley Cup aspirations has to deal with adversity and Malhotra’s absence will deliver a hefty dose. Coach Alain Vigneault reconfigured his lines in practice on Thursday and it looks as if Mason Raymond will take Malhotra’s spot as center on the third line with Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen. Chris Higgins, acquired at the trade deadline but unable to play until last week as his broken thumb healed, took the middle on the second line where he might play alongside Ryan Kesler and Mikael Samuelsson. Higgins has been a left winger for a good part of his NHL career, but has also played center.
For Malhotra, all he can do is wait for the swelling to subside so specialists can assess the damage. Whenever serious eye injuries occur, it renews calls to make visors mandatory. As in most areas of the game, NHL players are reluctant to change, and Kesler told Botchford, “You don’t want to say a visor could have helped because of the angle of the puck it could have gone under the visor.”
But Malhotra’s brother-in-law Martin Nash — a former Vancouver Whitecaps soccer star and brother of NBA star Steve Nash — who was at the game, posted on his Twitter account, “Tough to watch my bro in law bleed all over the ice in person #needstowearavisor”