The influence of the Canucks and Manny Malhotra on the NHL’s defensive strategies

Cam Charron

Manny Malhotra was shut down yesterday for the remainder of the Vancouver Canucks' season. Unable to fully recover from an eye injury sustained in the spring of 2011, his career is potentially over.

Malhotra came to the Canucks signing a three-year deal for $2.5-million per season. At the time, it was a hefty price for a player slated to be a third- or a fourth-line centreman, but the Canucks had some salary cap space to work with and shored up the depth positions on their roster.

Instantly, Malhotra started doing something that no player in the NHL was doing: taking a lot of face-offs in the defensive zone. More than that, taking face-offs almost exclusively in the defensive zone.

That's it. That's how the Canucks deployed their third line, defensive centreman. They set their matchups to reflect the location of the puck on the ice for a face-off and not who the other team had sent out or was going to sent out. By keeping Malhotra at one end, the Canucks were able to prolong the scoring peak of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who had just turned 30. Daniel Sedin won the scoring title that season and Henrik led the league in assists for the third straight year.

The acceptance of that role from Malhotra showcases a calibre of intangible not often discussed among hockey commentators: the willingness to accept a role designed to suppress individual scoring statistics. Malhotra's raison d'être was simple: play defensive minutes on the ice so the Sedin twins don't have to. The tangible benefit of your play will be noticeable in their point production, not yours. Their plus/minus, not yours.

Everything did work out quite nicely for Malhtora. At 30, he scored 11 goals and took 111 shots and managed to be a plus-9 despite starting 466 even-strength shifts in the defensive zone and just 155 in the offensive zone. While some teams had dallied in the concept of "zone matching" before the start of that season, the disparity of starts between offensive and defensive centremen was never that noticeable until Alain Vigneault, likely under directive from noted progressive thinker and Canucks' general manager Mike Gillis, began using Malhotra in a role that's now being emulated by teams across the National Hockey League.

Offensive and defensive zone start rates, referred to colloquially as "zone starts" in the statistical community, are tracked dating back to the 2007-2008 campaign, along with all the excellent other statistics at Malhotra was the first specialist to be on the ice for 200 or more defensive zone face-off wins while also having an 'offensive zone start rate' of less than 30%.

Offensive zone start rate is calculated by the number of overall shifts starting at the offensive zone on the ice divided by the total number of shifts started in either attacking zone, which excludes neutral zone appearances. Faceoff zone start effects have an obvious influence on puck-possession, and puck-possession has an obvious influence on offensive zone time, which has an obvious influence on winning hockey games.

Since Malhotra's 2011 season, a few teams caught on. Along with Malhotra and teammate Maxim Lapierre in 2012, Winnipeg's Jim Slater and the New York Rangers' Brian Boyle saw a similar disparity. While Vancouver ended up trading for Samuel Pahlsson at the trading deadline, he was on pace to hit the achievement with the Columbus Blue Jackets under Scott Arniel's system. New York and Vancouver competed for the Presidents' Trophy. Winnipeg and Columbus were both plus-possession teams who were a goaltender short of competing for playoff spots.

This season, several players from a range of team are being deployed similarly. Paul Gaustad from Nashville. Markus Kruger from Chicago. Jay McClement from Toronto. Jeff Halpern from the Rangers. Lapierre and Malhotra from the Canucks are also on pace, and it's generally accepted that Lapierre will get Malhotra's role as a defensive zone face-off specialist. "Zone matching" is no longer in its infancy, and teams are finding ways to more efficiently deploy their top lines. Ideally, the right personnel -- both offensive and defensive -- is required to deploy players in this way.

"Matching", up until just two years ago, was exclusively about which players you had on the ice against which players. It was line matching. But thanks to Malhotra's willingness to accept an unconventional role and the Canucks' willingness to stick by a highly-paid depth centreman being used in a specialized capacity, "zone matching" is now something a lot more teams than Vancouver do.