VANCOUVER — You look at the stats, and the question isn’t why the Canucks made their decision on Manny Malhotra — it’s what took so long.
In nine games this season, Malhotra had yet to record a point, he was minus-3 and the Canucks’ penalty killing, his métier, was 22nd in the league.
Last year wasn’t much better: 18 points and minus-11 in 78 games on a Presidents Trophy winner. Add it all up and the sad and inescapable truth is Malhotra hasn’t been the same player since the night of Mar. 16, 2011, when an errant puck crashed into his eye.
But this is also an inescapable truth. If ever a player transcended numbers, it’s Malholtra. It might be the hoariest of clichés, but his contribution to the Canucks couldn’t be measured in points and plus-minus, which is why most everyone in the organization felt Thursday’s news in the pit of their stomachs.
It’s why general manager Mike Gillis said this was “The hardest thing I’ve done on this job,” as he announced Malhotra’s playing days as a Canuck were over. It’s why front-office types Laurence Gilman and Lorne Henning along with most of the Canucks’ office staff were in attendance as Gillis spoke. It’s why the players lined up to offer testimonials to their teammate.
It seems Malholtra, the player, can be replaced. Malholtra, the man? Not so much.
“He’s one of the best people I’ve ever played with,” said Ryan Kesler, who’s not exactly Captain Sensitive, but who was clearly moved by Thursday’s announcement.
“He’s one of those guys who never has a bad day. Every day he comes to the rink he’s the most excited guy to come here. He just has this love of life.”
Almost two years after a freak accident changed the course of Malholtra’s career, Gillis made the decision the 32-year-old from Mississauga either couldn’t or wouldn’t make on his own. There was a genuine concern within the organization that Malhotra was compromising his health, that his visual impairment wasn’t allowing him to protect himself.
Gillis didn’t say as much, but there were too many times Malhotra put himself in a vulnerable position on the ice. Out of respect for the veteran, players who had him lined up usually pulled up. But there was a fear that one day the player wouldn’t pull up or Malhotra wouldn’t be able to react the speed and violence of the game.
“We came to the conclusion for his long-term health and his long-term safety, this was the best thing we could do,” Gillis said.
Malhotra, predictably, doesn’t see it quite that way, and he was conspicuous by his absence at Thursday’s presser. That’s understandable. He still thinks he can beat this thing, and that determination, that single-mindedness, is just one of the qualities that made him so popular in the Canucks’ room.
As for the others, just ask his teammates.
“It was the things off the ice,” says Cory Schneider. “As a young player, I used to ask him all the time, ‘Hey Manny, what do I do here? What should I wear there? What do I need to bring to this?’ He was the guy you asked. He always seemed to have the right answer.”
Daniel Sedin talked about the level of respect Malhotra commanded.
“And it wasn’t just in here,” he said. “It was everyone: referees, coaches, other players. He was on a different level.
“He’s meant a lot to this group. This is really tough for us.”
You wonder, in fact, how the Canucks’ playoff run would have ended in 2011 had Malhotra stayed healthy. To that point he’d been everything the organization had asked for — 30 points, plus-nine, and maybe the best faceoff man in the league — when they signed him to a fat three-year, $7.5 million free-agent deal.
He just couldn’t get back to that level. Gillis was ready to shut him down at the end of last season, but, out of respect, allowed the veteran to put in a full summer of training and give it another shot this season.
The Canucks are now hoping he’ll take a job as an organizational consultant — read, unofficial assistant coach — and that would seem to be a good fit because, if ever a player was ready to go into coaching, it’s Malhotra
But he’s not there yet. Gillis kept talking about Malhotra’s pride and competitiveness, and you wouldn’t expect him to give up that easily. You just hope, when it’s all said and done, he’s still able to enjoy another good day at the rink.
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