A signing that went relatively unnoticed a few weeks ago was the Charlotte Checkers signing veteran center Manny Malhotra to a professional tryout contract. A former first round pick, Malhotra has been in the league for 14 years and while he has never lived up to his draft status, he has built a reputation as a solid defensive center. He spent the last three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and unfortunately, injuries have held him back during that time.
Malhotra was the Canucks third line center for most of the 2010-11 season and performed well in that role until a gruesome eye injury put him in injured reserve. He eventually returned to Vancouver's lineup in the playoffs, but suffered vision loss and it had a negative impact on his play the following season. Malhotra was able to suit up for 78 games in 2011-12 but was mainly used as a fourth liner and was limited to only nine games last season. At 33, Malhotra might still have something to offer, but is he healthy enough to play in the NHL full-time again?
It appears we will know the answer to this question by tomorrow night, as the Hurricanes have signed Malhotra to a one-year, two-way contract. With Radek Dvorak, Jeff Skinner and now Kevin Westgarth on the shelf, the Canes need another forward and it appears Malhotra will be getting the call for tomorrow's game against Tampa Bay. Forward depth was a major issue for the Hurricanes coming into the year and injuries have magnified that, so Malhotra will at least give them an experienced player for the bottom-six. How useful is Malhotra at this point in his career, though?
In his last full NHL season, Malhotra was used as the Canucks fourth line center and was regularly buried in the defensive zone by the Canucks coaching staff. Malhotra took only 14.3% of his even strength draws in the offensive zone that season and his deployment was similar the previous season, albeit with more minutes. Due to that, Malhotra's underlying numbers have taken a beating in the the last few seasons but prior to that, he did a pretty good job of driving the play at even strength. Both the Blue Jackets and Sharks used Malhotra in a defensive role and the puck was usually in the other team's zone whenever he was on the ice, showing that he did a fairly good job as a checking line center. He also scored 30+ points in each of those seasons, which is impressive when taking his role into account.
However, it's worth noting that those were Malhotra's prime years and there is a slim chance that he will return to that level, especially after the eye injury. The Hurricanes probably wont need him to be that kind of player, though since all they need right now is a fourth line center who isn't a liability at even strength. It's tough to say whether or not Malhotra can be that right now because he has played only nine NHL games in the last calendar year and his extreme deployment has really affected his underlying numbers. The Hurricanes might use him in the defensive zone, but I'm not sure if they will completely bury him there like Vancouver did, so he could be a decent possession player or at least a minor improvement over the Canes current fourth line. He should also help with faceoffs, as that is one skill which appears to have stuck with him even after the injuries.
In the short-term, I see Malhotra taking over Brett Sutter's role as the fourth line center with Sutter moving over to the wing. Muller might heavily deploy him in the defensive zone to take some heat off Jordan Staal's line, who have been playing virtually all of the toughs this year, and use him on the PK if he plays well enough. His ability to win faceoffs will likely keep him in the lineup over Sutter or Westgarth for at least a few games, so Malhotra will definitely get every chance to stick around. Carolina's found a few good bargains in the off-season with Radek Dvorak, Ron Hainsey & Nathan Gerbe, so let's hope that trend continues with Malhotra.