By Allan Muir
It was a good news/bad news day for the Vancouver Canucks.
The good news? Second-line center Ryan Kesler is set to make his season debut Friday night against Dallas.
Kesler had been sidelined by offseason shoulder surgery and only today wore a jersey at practice that showed him eligible for contact. Though he’s probably weeks away from being 100 percent, his return will provide a huge boost for a team that never sufficiently filled the massive hole he left in the top six. Two years ago he was a critical part of a team that advanced to the finals, scoring 41 goals and 73 points in a breakthrough season. His numbers dipped last year as he struggled with various injuries, but he remained a valued two-way contributor.
The Vancouver Sun reported that he skated on a line with Zack Kassian and Chris Higgins at practice Thursday and also saw time with the first power play unit.
But the joy over Kesler’s return was tempered by the announcement that veteran center Manny Malhotra had been placed on injured reserve and would be lost for the season.
The timing, however, was not coincidental. With Kesler returning, the team needed to clear roster space and wanted to keep promising rookie Jordan Schroeder in the lineup.
Malhotra, who missed Tuesday’s game with Minnesota for “personal reasons,” took one for the team.
He twice underwent surgery after being struck in the eye by a puck in a 2011 game against Colorado. While he continued to play, he never regained full vision in the eye. This, then, gives him a chance to “medically” step out of the way and clear space for Kesler’s return.
Vancouver GM Mike Gillis believed Malhotra was putting himself at risk by continuing to play with limited vision. “It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing at all,” Gillis said Thursday afternoon. “We came to the conclusion for his long-term health, his long-term safety, that this was the best thing we could do.”
He added that he wanted to give Malhotra a chance to train over the summer and play some games this year to see if there was any progress. After nine games, he determined there wasn’t.
If this is the end of the line for the seventh overall pick in 1998 as a player, his departure creates a character deficit in the room and the lineup. Malhotra wasn’t a scorer — he averaged 10 goals and 29 points per season since the 2005-06 campaign — but his work ethic and defensive skills made him a reliable lead protector and an invaluable part of the penalty kill. His ability to handle a shutdown role played a key part in freeing up Kesler for that breakout 2010-11 season.
Malhotra was at his best on the draw. Among centers who had taken at least 50 faceoffs this season, Malhotra ranked second with a stout 65.3 winning percentage — by far the best mark on a team that is under 50 percent on the season. Three-quarters of those were taken in his own zone, so Malhotra’s ability to take control in the circle was critical to Vancouver’s defensive stability.
It’s tough to replace that kind of presence. Kesler will pick up some of this slack and fourth liner Max Lapierre will chip in, but it’s thought that Gillis will look to add a replacement before the playoffs.
In the meantime, Malhotra could be available to offer a few tips. “I’ve asked him to stay on with our organization,” Gillis said. “He could help us on a number of levels.”