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Loss of Malhotra leaves Canucks in faceoff 'fancy stat' flux

Photo from Flickr/Loxy!!

The line between Manny Malhotra and the need to trade Roberto Luongo sooner rather than later might be finer than anyone realized. 

The Vancouver Canucks decision to shut Malhotra down for good late last week inspired one of the more pessimistic conspiracy theories in recent memory. It argued that the team strung Malhotra along — knowing he was in danger of being seriously injured on account of his eye injury — until Ryan Kesler returned to action and the faceoff circle. Then they sent him packing.

It’s a dramatically shallow argument, one that requires a selective memory and putting aside the ways in which Canucks President and General Manager Mike Gillis has bent over backwards to make the team a player-friendly employer to work for. It means forgetting how the club tried to help Rick Rypien steer his way through the depression which ultimately took his life, and it means conveniently overlooking that the team has extended Malhotra what is essentially an open-ended any-capacity-you-want job offer once he officially retires.

But there is an ugly on-ice connection here to the return of Kesler.

It’s no secret Malhotra is Lord of the Faceoff. He’s annually in the top three or four stickmen league wide and routinely puts together games with win rates over 70 per cent. Which makes him an absolute super star in that regard. Even with vision in only one eye he’s been winning them at a rate of just over 65 per cent.

It’s also no secret that the Canucks have pioneered the use of zone deployment statistics, the confident and brainy love-child of the 'fancy stat' movement, which embraces Corsi, Relative Quality of Competition, and all the numbers you can bend back and forth around a cluster diagram (stick-tap to the widely used and authoritative behindthenet.ca). It’s all slowly creeping into mainstream media coverage, but the abacus-wielding writers over at Canucks Army have been masterfully peddling it for years with regards to the Canucks.

Malhotra’s proficiency has for three seasons allowed the Canucks to start him almost exclusively in the defensive zone, and the Sedin’s almost exclusively in the offensive zone. It’s also allowed Kesler to start more in the offensive zone than he otherwise might. Many have attributed the Sedin's Art Ross Trophy winning seasons to their zone deployment, a direct result of Manny Malhotra's faceoff prowess. 

Naturally, his absense throws this all into flux.

On Sunday night against the St. Louis Blues Ryan Kesler had already taken five of the teams eight faceoffs just five minutes into the game.

One telling sequence had his line taking an offensive zone faceoff to the left of Blues goalie Jake Allen and then a defensive zone faceoff half a shift later to the right of Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo. There was no icing call, Kesler’s line wasn’t caught. Head coach Alain Vigneault left his second line out to take the second draw in a row because he had little other choice, and won't until Kesler finds an understudy. 

And this is where the Manny Malhotra conspiracy theory really falls to pieces.

If the Canucks were willing to sacrifice the mans safety and exploit his desire to play at any cost they’d be better off keeping him on the roster, even with Kesler back in the fold.

Henrik Sedin has never been the best faceoff man but he’s put together some truly horrific outings this season. On Sunday night he finished with a paltry 32 per cent win rate. One game earlier he mustered 42 per cent. Lapierre was better Sunday night, but one game earlier matched Henrik’s nervous 42 per cent. Rookie Jordan Schroeder has strung together two impressive games in the dot, but three games ago he cratered with a 23 per cent win rate.

In short, every center the Canucks have who isn’t named Ryan Kesler or Manny Malhotra is completely unpredictable.

And unpredictability kind of takes the wind out of the advanced-stat, zone deployment sails.  

If you think this is all hair-splitting and boring over analysis rest assured that it matters to the Canucks, and they’re taking it seriously enough that it could be the one thing that ratchets the need to make a Luongo trade for (at least) a proper third line center who can take the pressure off Kesler.

Prior to the loss of Malhotra it seemed as if this team had no pressing roster need or hole to fill. The emergence of Zack Kassian and Jordan Schroeder, the impending return of Ryan Kesler and David Booth, and the revitalization of Mason Raymond and Keith Ballard meant the Canucks were likely the deepest team in the league — on paper. They weren’t playing fantastic, but the pieces where there.

That all remains true, but too much of the teams potential success is being hung off the oft-injured frame of Ryan Kesler, as well as the blind hope that Henrik Sedin has a good night in the circle.

As poorly as Malhotra was playing outside the faceoff circle his absence from this roster should be ringing alarm bells in the heads of General Manager Mike Gillis and his assistant Laurence Gilman.

It’s not panic time, but it’s an issue which needs an effective resolution. 

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