Manny Malhotra & the “third line”

Right now, one of the rumors circulating around the Carolina Hurricanes is their desire to add a third line center before the trade deadline. This figured not to be an issue coming into the year because the Hurricanes had a lot of natural centers on their roster and could have filled the hole from within. Or at least that's how it seemed on paper. Through the pre-season and 57 games this year, none of Elias Lindholm, Riley Nash or Jeremy Welsh has been able to step up as the team's third line pivot and it remains one of their biggest needs as the trade deadline inches closer. 

The player currently occupying the third line center role is Manny Malhotra, who was signed at the beginning of November after accepting a tryout deal with the Charlotte Checkers. He was initially thought to be the Canes fourth line center and help with faceoffs, but his role has gotten bigger as the year has gone on and he is now essentially the team's "third line" center. Malhotra's stay in Carolina hasn't been long, but he has made a positive impact in some areas. He is still one of the best faceoff guys in the league and he plays one of the most difficult roles on the team as the guy taking most of the defensive zone draws. He has also been a pretty popular guy in the locker room, quickly becoming one of the team's alternate captains.

There's a lot to like about Malhotra's game and Hurricanes management has taken a liking to him by saying that they have been pleased with his play as the team's third line center and aren't as urgent to acquire one at the deadline. This could very well be a smokescreen, but Malhotra has essentially been the team's 3C since December or so. His ice-time is comparable to other third liners and he has gotten a lot of trust from the coaching staff. Are they using him more than they should, though? We'll look at this and Malhotra's impact on the team's after the jump.

One of the benefits of having a guy like Malhotra on your team is that he plays a very under-appreciated role as a faceoff specialist. I think faceoffs can be a tad overrated, as there's more to puck possession than just winning the draw, but Malhotra's usage on faceoffs has always been very extreme in the sense that he takes just about all of his even strength draws in the defensive zone. This is how he was utilized in Vancouver and they used Malhotra's defensive strength's to the rest of their team's advantage by giving Ryan Kesler more opportunities in the zone and sheltering the hell out of their first line.

Muller's adopted a similar strategy by burying Malhotra's line to give a territorial boost for the rest of his forwards. Carolina was in desperate need of a player like this earlier in the year because prior to signing Malhotra, Muller was using Jordan Staal's line in strictly a defensive role. Jordan was taking only 30-35% of his 5v5 draws in the offensive zone while playing with guys like Gerbe & Dvorak on his wings. He had only three points through the first 12 games of the season as a result. Since acquiring Malhotra, there's been a stark difference in how the Hurricanes have deployed his line.

Malhotra taking on all of the burden in the defensive zone has allowed Muller to give Eric Staal & Riley Nash what I like to call "the Sedin treatment" by using them in the offensive zone as much as possible. There's been games where Staal has taken as many as 12 or 13 5v5 draws in the offensive zone this year, which has made it relatively easy for his line to drive possession and get more chances to contribute offensively. Jordan has also begun to take more draws in the offensive zone since the acquisition of Malhotra and while his offensive numbers are still underwhelming, he has been considerably better since November. In fact, every other line has seen their scoring numbers go up.

  E. Staal PPG J. Staal PPG Nash PPG
Before Malhotra 0.19 0.25 0.18
After Malhotra 0.88 0.53 0.35

This is a little misleading because the Hurricanes played only 12 games before they signed Malhotra and Jordan was having some god-awful puck luck for all of October, but he has made things easier on the other three lines. Jordan is the one who should be benefiting from this the most. He was a positive possession player even when he was getting buried in the defensive zone for all of October and while he has gotten even better at driving the play, the offensive outburst has yet to come. I'm not sure how much of this is his own fault because he doesn't have a lot of control over his on-ice shooting percentage but the coaching staff is at least trying to get him going.

You can see how having a player like Malhotra can make a positive impact on the rest of the team, but there is a downside with how much the Canes are relying on him. The coaching staff sends him (and sometimes his entire line out) for almost every defensive zone draw and they love to use him late in games while protecting the lead. He led the Canes in third period ice time in the 3-1 win over St. Louis and sometimes gets matched up against other team's top-six forwards.

Malhotra is a fine defensive player, but driving possession has never been his strong suit and this is a problem if he keeps getting the tough matchups. He is the Hurricanes lowest rated forward in terms of shot differential and while part of that is due to the way he is used, the rate that his line gets outshot is pretty alarming, especially with how often they are used in key situations. His line often gets trapped in their own zone for long durations and have been prone to a few breakdowns because of that. The game-winning goal against Winnipeg last Tuesday night being an example.

If Malhotra was used as a fourth liner here, this wouldn't be an issue but he's the Canes third line center now and is getting trusted with some pretty important minutes. Again, he's good enough defensive to be trusted in this role, but his inability to drive the play forward has led to him and his line being on the ice for six 5v5 goals against in the last seven games. This is why the Canes are in the market for a third line center. Malhotra's a good player to have and most contending teams would probably want him, but they would want him more as a fourth line center than in a top-nine role. The Hurricanes might be content with him as the third line center for now, but it's fair to speculate that they might be over-slotting him and could use an upgrade.