Canucks tap Malhotra to help shape next generation

Iain MacIntyre and Dan Murphy discuss Patrik Allvin's message at the end-of-season media availability and explain why there's an important summer ahead for the Vancouver Canucks' General Manager.

VANCOUVER — Hate that Jeremy Colliton is leaving the Vancouver Canucks. Love that they’ve hired Manny Malhotra to replace him.

Minor-league staffing announcements generally aren’t seismic events. But one of the more important transactions the Canucks will make this off-season occurred suddenly on Friday when the National Hockey League team announced that Malhotra will replace Colliton as head coach of Vancouver’s minor-league team in Abbotsford.

Malhotra is returning to the West Coast and the organization that gave him his coaching start in 2016. Malhotra spent the last four seasons as an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs and is taking his first head-coaching position after the Canucks and Colliton failed to agree on an extension while Colliton seeks opportunities to return to the NHL.

Colliton was interviewed recently for the San Jose Sharks’ vacant head-coaching job and his return to the NHL feels inevitable after two excellent seasons in the American Hockey League.

“Jeremy did a fantastic job for us,” Canucks assistant general manager Ryan Johnson, who oversees the team’s farm system, told Sportsnet Friday afternoon. “There was no (pre-determined) intention to move on from Jeremy. But he had every right, based on the job he did for us in Abbotsford, to see what would be the next step for him as a coach getting back to the NHL. Is there a head-coaching opportunity now? That could happen.

“But the major risk for me if Jeremy moves on, and we’ve waited, the two or three people at the top of our list have been plucked off. I never had a bad conversation with Jeremy. We’ve always been open with each other, we talked this morning. Jeremy is a fantastic person and a helluva head coach and he’s going to coach again in the NHL.”

Money is almost always a factor in professional sports. It’s naïve to think otherwise. But with Rick Tocchet newly crowned as the NHL coach-of-the-year, and the Canucks coming off a 109-point season, there was little opportunity for Colliton to make it back to the NHL in Vancouver.

The Canucks made a contract offer to him, but the sides never came close to settling on an extension as Colliton assessed his coaching future.

It appears to be a bright one.

Following a tumultuous four seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, who in 2018 made Colliton the youngest head coach in the NHL when they promoted him from their AHL team at age 33, Colliton re-calibrated his coaching career with the Canucks organization.

The farm team in Abbotsford posted identical 40-25-7 records in each of the last two seasons, but Colliton’s more important coaching work is splashed across the bottom of the Canucks’ roster and will become even more evident next season.

Forwards Nils Hoglander, Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Aman logged Stanley Cup Playoff games for Vancouver this month after significant stints in Abbotsford studying Pro Hockey 101 under Colliton. Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin has already identified Linus Karlsson, Arshdeep Bains, Aatu Raty, Max Sasson and Cole McWard as prospects ready to challenge for an NHL roster spot next season.

Defenceman Noah Juulsen graduated to the NHL team this season, and goalie Arturs Silovs will be on it next year after starting 10 straight games in the playoffs.

This is why Colliton’s exit brings uncertainty, but also why the Canucks are elated to repatriate the universally-respected Malhotra. The Toronto-area native was a key depth player on the Vancouver team that went to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final before a grave eye injury accelerated the end of his playing career.

“While it’s risky to move on, it would have been risky for us to wait and hope and not know who our coach would be,” Johnson said. “We are really happy to have Manny back in our organization.

“When we first hired him the first time… we just wanted Manny in for the quality of the person he is. It was like, let’s get him in the organization and we’ll figure out how he can help us. We started him in player development, but he quickly made an impression on our coaching staff with his knowledge and character and moved into that.”

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Malhotra was an NHL assistant coach under Travis Green for three seasons in Vancouver before taking a slightly more senior position with the Maple Leafs under Sheldon Keefe in 2020.

The 44-year-old returns to Vancouver amid more churn in Toronto, where Craig Berube was hired as head coach last week after Keefe was fired on May 9.

Keefe was introduced Thursday as head coach of the New Jersey Devils, whose interim coach, Green, was hired May 7 to be the head coach of the Ottawa Senators.

Yes, coaching is a funny business.

Tocchet and Berube are close friends, and the Canucks would not have hired Malhotra without believing he could build the same trust with Tocchet and the player-development staff that Colliton had.

“It’s obviously a very exciting time to be a Vancouver Canuck, and I was extremely fortunate and happy to have this opportunity come about,” Malhotra told Sportsnet 650 radio. “When you talk about the growth and evolution of a coach… I felt like now was the time to take that next step in my coaching journey.

“I’ve learned a lot from a lot of really good coaches along the way, so I feel like it’s my time to apply those things. Really looking forward to running my own bench.”

Vancouver became Malhotra’s home after he married Joann Nash, the sister of basketball Hall of Famer Steve Nash. The Nash family is from Victoria, and Malhotra has called himself “an adopted West Coaster.”

His son, Caleb, has committed to play next season with the Chilliwack Chiefs of the B.C. Hockey League.

Malhotra will be reconnecting in Vancouver with Johnson, who pushed for his hiring eight years ago when Trevor Linden was Canucks president, and former teammates Daniel and Henrik Sedin, now key members of the player-development staff.

“I literally have to get back to them on a text message right now,” Malhotra said. “My phone’s been blowing up for the last two hours so I haven’t had a chance to respond to everybody yet. But they are definitely two big reasons why I’m really excited to be in this role right now.”

It’s an important one.

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