Saturday, 20 December 2014

An apologia for Manny Malhotra.

Habs fans were over the moon with Manny Malhotra early this season as he lightened the load on Tomas Plekanec, played superb defensive hockey and penalty kill minutes, and had a significant positive effect on the team's faceoff prowess.

As the season proceeds though, his non-existent offensive production has drawn more critical attention.  The very reasonable question is posed whether the team would be better off taking him out of the lineup entirely and replacing him with someone else, anyone who can chip in a goal now and then.

I don’t denounce ‘advanced stats’, or claim that I find all I need to know ‘just by watching the game’, but something that seems immediately apparent to me is that the Canadiens are a much stronger team this season, and a lot of that seems to derive from the strong faceoff performance the team has demonstrated.

A few years ago during the Gomez era, we’d lose lots and lots of draws and collapse into a shell, it was our M.O., with Hal Gill and Josh Gorges blocking shots, it was like the Alamo after every faceoff it seemed. We could rely on losing the draw and then ‘defending’. A faceoff win was a refreshing surprise.

This season, amazingly, we’re winning a lot of faceoffs, some games we’re downright dominant. Some of that can be attributed to our centremen growing more mature. There was recently a chart or article that showed that centremen improve their FO% as they age generally, even well into their thirties, that as they accumulate experience and grow stronger physically they win more and more on average compared to their younger counterparts.

A lot of that success in my calculation is also due to Manny taking on the toughest assignments, and Tomas and David and Lars and Alex facing relatively easier competition compared to last season. It’s a cascade effect. Our centres from last season have climbed down a notch in the degree of difficulty of draws they face, and have shown consequent dramatic improvement, more than can be shown by a simple age progression according to the charts.

So yeah, to my layman’s eyes, the Canadiens are quantitatively better at faceoffs, but also qualitatively better as a whole, we go on the attack rather than chase the puck and get banged up in the corners and block slapshots and get injured, etc. And it’s hard to tease apart the cost-benefit of the addition of Manny to our roster, but I would say it’s hard whichever way you want to make the argument, good or bad.

We have to fold in his other contributions, his size and physical assets, his leadership and experience, his dressing room presence, the domino effect he has on other centreman in terms of their improved faceoff performance, among others, and subtract his abysmal production thus far, to get a full picture of his value to the team. To reduce him to only his faceoff prowess, and say that's all he brings, is to caricature him as a player.

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