Malhotra playing on his own terms
RALEIGH, N.C. -- It is appropriate at this time of year to reflect on the kinds of players we are most thankful for.
Yes, there are those talkative ones, the immensely talented ones, the ones who make you glad you paid whatever you paid to get into the rink.
But scratch a little deeper and there are the ones you are thankful for because of what they represent, what they have accomplished in the face of adversity or even more in the face of voices who have said, "That's it, you're done."
The veteran center remains one of the game's most reliable faceoff men and has brought ballast to a young Canes team that has struggled to stay afloat this season. He has brought veteran calm to the ice and a happy reverence for the game to the dressing room.
He has done all of this in the face of reduced vision as a result of an eye injury that required multiple surgeries sustained late in the 2010-11 season thanks to an errant puck. And he has continued to play the game at a high level in spite of the fact his old team, the Vancouver Canucks, told him last season they didn't think it was safe for him to continue to play. But Malhotra did not accept that verdict and found a way to not just find employment as an NHL player but to become an important part of the machinery of an NHL team, something that has marked his long NHL career regardless of where he's been.
"It's worked out very well," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford told ESPN.com in a recent interview.
The Canes pursued Malhotra in the past, but he ended up signing in 2010 in Vancouver, where he played parts of three seasons. Then the Canucks made the determination that the road had come to an end.
Last summer, Malhotra's agent called Rutherford to see if the Canes were still interested. There were a lot of moving parts on both sides and plans were put aside. But when the season started, Rutherford offered Malhotra a professional tryout with the team's AHL affiliate in Charlotte. He had Malhotra tested by the team's eye doctors. They pored over his medical records. And when the team had done its due diligence, the Canes signed him to a one-year deal.
The team didn't have to wait long for the rugged center's impact to be felt. Malhotra scored the winning goal in dramatic fashion, in overtime against Philadelphia, in just his third game. He has won 118 of 191 faceoffs since joining the team and the team as a whole has won the faceoff battle in 10 of 11 games since his arrival. In Sunday's important win over the Ottawa Senators, Malhotra was wearing an assistant captain's A on his jersey.
But -- and here we veer dangerously close to the old "he's good in the room" standard that is often used to describe players who can no longer contribute on the ice but whose feelings no one wants to hurt -- Malhotra's value to this team cannot simply be tabulated by looking at a score sheet.
"Always when you bring a guy in who's dealt with adversity, he has a lot to show the other players," Rutherford said. "It reminds me of when I brought Gary Roberts in and Gary Roberts was told his career was over."
As Malhotra's old roommate in Columbus -- and current teammate in Raleigh -- Ron Hainsey noted there isn't much that Malhotra hasn't seen through his 876 (and counting) regular-season games. He's been on good teams and bad teams, emerging teams and fading teams, he's been on waivers and, of course, he was told more recently he should hang 'em up.
"He's a leader, just how he acts day in and out," Hainsey told ESPN.com. "He's been through everything."
And yet he's still here, drawing on a jersey, tightening his skates and, if young players don't see that and feel if not a little in awe, certainly inspired to do the same, then there's something integral missing in their DNA.
"Obviously he's got an injury. His vision is impaired. There's no getting around that," Hainsey said. "He's had to work hard."
But, he's not the first guy to have an eye injury and make adjustments to keep playing.
"He's had some time now to adjust to what he has now as he puts it," Hainsey said. "And he's still very effective. He's still a top faceoff guy, which is huge for us. We immediately had possession of the puck more, which is great."
Malhotra admits there were times during the summer when he wondered if these moments -- working up a sweat at practice, taking an important draw, gathering gear for another road trip -- were at an end. As the days passed and the phone remained silent, he admitted he could see an unwelcome end in the distance.
"You could see the door slowly closing, closing, closing," Malhotra told ESPN.com.
But doctors he consulted told him he could play even with limited sight in his left eye, so he kept working out, hoping he would get one more shot. That last thing he wanted was to get a call and not be able to keep up for want of conditioning or timing.
"For me it was kind of 'play or bust' this summer," he said. "I always believed that if I was given an opportunity, I could get back to the player I was."
It's more than just playing, of course, it's contributing.
"As a player, you take pride in having a role on the team and taking ownership of that role," Malhotra said.
He also understands that part of his role with a Hurricanes team that has not made the playoffs since 2009 is to keep the focus where it needs to be, to keep the negative vibes that come from losing from becoming part of the fabric of the team. Along with Radek Dvorak, with whom he has played in a checking capacity, and Hainsey, Malhotra has embraced that role, talking about the game during practices, in the dressing room and at dinner.
"It's part of the game I enjoy," he said. "Just by nature I'm a very talkative person."
Who knows how this all plays out for the 33-year-old, who was once upon a time drafted seventh overall by the New York Rangers in 1998 and who was invited to dinner by a guy named Wayne Gretzky during Malhotra's first training camp.
Former NHLer Ray Ferraro, now a national broadcast analyst based in Vancouver, has seen Malhotra and his family up-close the last few years as their kids participate in the same youth programs. It comes down to a simple thing as far as Ferraro can figure: Malhotra is now the master of his own destiny.
"I'm not surprised, really. Vancouver made the determination that they made. He didn't agree with that decision," Ferraro said. "Most players want to be able to go out on their own terms."
Malhotra, the father of three boys ages 5, 3 and 10 months, is no different.
"Where there was no one to skate with [at the end of the summer], he was still skating," Ferraro said.
The longtime NHLer recalled the days after Vancouver decided that Malhotra wasn't able to play and the different feel around GM Place.
"It was really an odd feeling around the rink because he's an incredibly well-respected guy," Ferraro said.
If his absence created something of a vacuum in Vancouver, a similar void has been more than filled in Raleigh. And for that the Canes are thankful.