It says something about Manny Malhotra’s career trajectory that he ended up at the top of Sheldon Keefe’s list.
The Toronto Maple Leafs' search for a new assistant coach was unusually thorough last year, in part due to the extra time Keefe found himself with during the pandemic and also because he was required to conduct all of the interviews in a virtual setting.
That allowed him to consider a huge pool of candidates, including five or six former NHL head coaches and many more with experience running a bench at other levels of the sport. And yet it was the 40-year-old Malhotra that jumped to the front of the line. He’d spent three years as an eye-in-the-sky assistant for the Vancouver Canucks after his playing days ended and Keefe saw a perfect opportunity to offer him a promotion.
“I think Manny’s a terrific person for us just with where we’re at in terms of where we need to grow with our players individually, with our team, with our habits and our consistency and coming together as a group,” Keefe said after the hiring.
Which brings us to another strong indicator about Malhotra’s growing aptitude for the job: The Maple Leafs boast the NHL’s most lethal power play at 43.3 per cent as the Canucks arrive at Scotiabank Arena for the start of a three-game set Thursday.
This has been his baby since coming to Toronto and maybe not the most seamless fit given that Malhotra made his name as a responsible checking centre -- something documented nicely in this profile by Sportsnet’s David Singh in August.
His 991-game NHL career included just 12 power-play goals.
With two balanced units and a rethought attack that includes more chaos in front of the net, the Leafs have piled home 13 power-play goals in the first 10 games of the season under his watch. That’s a scorching start with no exhibition play to fine-tune things and only a short training camp, which included a presentation from Malhotra about league-wide power-play trends and a detailed explanation about how he envisioned Toronto’s offensively-minded lineup finding more success with the man-advantage.
One of his strongest coaching attributes is the ability to zero in on exactly what he wants to see executed. He understands the demands of the game and what the players are going through, and seems to have a knack for connecting dots between the two.
“He’s very precise. He gives you the gameplan and what you want to do,” said Wayne Simmonds. “He’s detail-oriented.”
“It’s been great to have him,” said Mitch Marner. “Another guy you can talk to on the bench and just ask him what his thoughts are on some plays.”
Added Jake Muzzin: “You know he’s a nice voice just to talk to. He knows a lot about the game, he played a lot, been in a lot of situations, a lot of experience, so he’s been a great help to us.”
With the Canucks in town, he’ll also be called on to provide some inside knowledge. Vancouver is the opponent assigned to Malhotra -- the Leafs have a staffer dedicated to each of the six teams they’ll face this season -- and it should be a comfortable assignment after the time spent working on Travis Green’s staff right up until their Game 7 loss to Vegas in the Edmonton bubble last September.
Coaching found Malhotra as much as he found it, starting first as a non-travelling development coach in Vancouver when he ran out of places to play in 2016. After being promoted to an assistant the following year he spent a lot of time working with the Canucks centres, most notably Bo Horvat, focusing on extra faceoff work and other details unique to the position.
He also oversaw the pre-scout of opponents and served as another set of eyes for Green watching games from up high. But there was no clear path to expanding his duties beyond that with veterans Nolan Baumgartner and Newell Brown ahead of him on the staff.
Malhotra hadn’t pursued prior opportunities presented by other NHL teams, but wanted to go through the process with the Leafs when they asked the Canucks for permission to speak with him. The native of Mississauga, Ont., had played against Keefe going back to when they were kids but the two men didn’t know each other personally.
He quickly became Keefe’s top choice to replace the departed Paul McFarland.
Beyond the instant success the Leafs have found on the power play since his hiring, Keefe appreciates how well Malhotra connects with the players. He’s often seen giving faceoff pointers at the end of morning skates. And after Tuesday’s practice he appeared to offer Mikko Lehtonen some encouraging words not long after the defenceman had a long discussion with Keefe.
It’s early days yet, but his impact is already being felt on a staff that also includes veterans Dave Hakstol and Paul MacLean.
“The power play’s the big one. Aside from that, just the way he interacts with the players,” said Keefe, when asked about Malhotra’s contributions. “His experience as a player and what he can bring to the coaching staff and that perspective [is beneficial].
“Coming from Vancouver where he was a part of a young developing team that found its way to playoff success last season, all of these things have really helped our crew greatly as a coaching staff.”
Credit the Canucks for a primary assist.