One of the great revelations of last season was the value of Manny Malhotra. He was the catalyst that allowed the Sedins to be deployed more offensively than any other top line in the NHL and allowed Ryan Kesler to be the jack of all trades the Canucks needed him to be.
Vancouver spent $7.5 million over three years to ensure that Malhotra would be the forward equivalent of a stay-at-home defenseman and eat all the tough minutes while others basked in the glory of cushy zone starts.
Given Vancouver's success, every GM in the league should be deploying a full-blown search party to look for the next Manny Malhotra. The Canucks were able to demonstrate the value he brings to a team in search of favorable matchups, and just about every team in the league could use someone in a similar role. However, finding comparables to Malhotra's 2010-11 season is practically impossible. Not many forwards face the hardest competition on their team while simultaneously enduring zone start percentages (25%) that make running into Mount Byfuglien seem enjoyable.
Rather than look at Malhotra's incomparable 2010-11 season, we can look at his underlying numbers from the previous three seasons with San Jose and Columbus. There are some clear themes in his performance that indicate his ability to handle such a tough assignment last year.
In the three seasons from 2007-08 to 2009-10, Malhotra regularly faced tough competition and started a large percentage of his shifts in his own end. During that same timeframe, he regularly scored like a marginal top-six forward and was a positive possession player. Using those themes for our search, we were able to look through every player over the past four seasons that played more than 30 games with the following filters:
CorsiRelQoC >= 0.35
ESP/60 >= 1.60
Corsi >= 0.0
Zone Start % <= 46.0%
Surprisingly, there were only 32 player seasons out of 3,503 that met the "Malhotra criteria" and Manny himself represented three of those. With less than 1% of all player seasons in our timeframe qualifying, it might be tempting to declare a player of Malhotra's ilk as irreplaceable. That said, part of the reason those seasons are so rare is that coaches are often hesitant to use players in such difficult roles for fear that they'll be overwhelmed. However, when we do find players capable of keeping their heads above water in such difficult circumstances, it's worth looking a little deeper.
Below is a list of all the players who qualified under the "Malhotra Criteria"
Three qualifying seasons
Manny Malhotra (07-08, 08-09, 09-10)
Fittingly, the only player with more than two qualifying seasons was the man the criteria was named after.
Two qualifying seasons
Frans Nielsen (09-10, 10-11)
Jannik Hansen (08-09, 10-11)
Marc Savard (07-08, 08-09)
Ryan Kesler (08-09, 09-10)
General managers across the NHL should be reserving a slot on their roster in 2012-13 for Frans Nielsen. He's in the last year of a deal that pays him $550,000 this season and will be a UFA at the age of 28 next summer. In the last two seasons, his relative Corsi rate has been over 13.0, despite playing tough minutes on a terrible team.
Jannik Hansen played the majority of his minutes last season with Malhotra and Raffi Torres, amassing a pretty solid possession record despite playing tough minutes. However, some of Hansen's best results were recorded away from Malhotra and the uphill work. He's very effective, but his results are certainly clouded by playing with possibly the best defensive center in the game.
Marc Savard gets a lot of credit for being such a great playmaker, and rightfully so. However, he's been incredibly effective in a two-way role, which makes his concussion problems that much more depressing.
It's also no surprise to see Selke winner Ryan Kesler on the list. His two-way game has been well documented, and it just seems like an embarrassment of riches for the Canucks to have three of the top five players on this list. That said, it also speaks volumes about how coach Alain Vigneault deploys defensive forwards as well.
One qualifying season
Patrice Bergeron (10-11)
Kyle Okposo (10-11)
Martin Erat (10-11)
Jeff Carter (10-11)
Vincent Lecavalier (10-11)
David Legwand (10-11)
Joe Pavelski (10-11)
Michael Grabner (10-11)
Sean Bergenheim (10-11)
Eric Belanger (09-10)
Andrew Ladd (08-09)
Dave Bolland (08-09)
Colby Armstrong (08-09)
Loui Eriksson (08-09)
Alex Burrows (08-09)
Jordan Staal (08-09)
Stephen Weiss (08-09)
Mikko Koivu (07-08)
Jeff Halpern (07-08)
Rod Brind'amour (07-08)
Scott Upshall (07-08)
The Florida Panthers additions of Scott Upshall and Sean Bergenheim would indicate that they have wingers to pair with Stephen Weiss on a line that could take the heavy lifting off the rest of their lineup. It adds fuel to the fire that their free spending this summer may have some merit.
The Edmonton Oilers may have a shrewd move on their hands if Eric Belanger can eat a few defensive zone starts while young, offensively-gifted forwards like Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall get more time in the offensive zone.
Martin Erat and David Legwand have long been underrated players, purely because they play in a non-traditional market like Nashville. However, they played a valuable role in allowing some of the team's other forwards easier minutes.
The Islanders young line of Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, and Frans Nielsen looks set to be an incredible combo this season. If they can take some of the heat off of John Tavares, the Islanders may have good reason to expect some improvement this year.
Vinny Lecavalier's appearance on this list shows how much his role has changed over the past few years. He's become more of a shutdown center than a leading scorer. He's still poor value for his immense contract, but at least he's playing an important role to free up Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos for offensive duty.
There aren't many players in the NHL that can do what Manny Malhotra can do consistently. He's definitely a unique player. However, using his previous seasons as an indicator of things to come, we can find other forwards who look set to provide that same value. That search, however, is highly dependent on finding players who have been used in similar "tough minutes" roles. Using those filters, the embarrassment of riches in Vancouver becomes apparent and the tragedy of Marc Savard's injury is highlighted. That said, NHL general managers should be pre-drafting contracts for Frans Nielsen in anticipation of free agency this summer.
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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