VANCOUVER – Celebration over Ryan Kesler's impending return to the lineup was muted in the Vancouver Canucks locker room Thursday as players learned they had lost veteran Manny Malhotra for the season.
About the same time Kesler was creating a buzz with a regular shift in practice, the team issued a press release announcing Malhotra had been placed on injured reserve for the rest of the season. The popular 32-year-old center's season – and possibly his career – is over because of a vision-threatening eye injury suffered almost two years ago.
SOG: 2 | +/-: -3
"I wouldn't put anybody in a position where if I was uncomfortable with their ability to protect themselves or ability to function out on the ice and be at a higher risk than normal," Gillis said. "Particularly in today's game, where it is so fast, the players are so big that even someone not trying to hurt him or injure him, an innocent collision could be really damaging if you don't know or you are unaware."
Malhotra, who is in the final season of a three-year, $7.5-million contract, was struck under the left eye by a deflected puck during a game on March 16, 2011. He underwent several surgeries to save his vision and made a surprising return in the Stanley Cup Final that same year, but was never quite the same player after the incident. His point totals and effectiveness slid, but Gillis said he was more concerned about his safety.
"It's a situation that basically changed Manny's life in half a second," Gillis said. "Watching what he did to try and recover and the difficulty of that, it was a difficult decision for me to make, one that has been thought about for some time. It wasn't done spur of the moment at all. We came to the conclusion that for his long-term health and his long-term safety this was the best thing we could do."
Gillis said he came to that conclusion after last season, but Malhotra talked him into another opportunity. He'd had more surgery before last season, leaving him unable to train properly. He finished with seven goals and 18 points, roughly half his totals from the previous three seasons, and was minus-11, an uncharacteristic total for a player brought in to be a defensive, penalty-killing and faceoff specialist.
Malhotra remained among the NHL's faceoff leaders, finishing fourth last season at 58.5 percent and winning 65.3 percent this season. He convinced Gillis that a full offseason to train would be enough to change his mind.
But with Malhotra without a point and minus-3 after nine games, Gillis wasn't convinced and made the decision to end his season.
"There was certain instances I felt he was extremely vulnerable and went to him like I said I would if I felt this way," Gillis said. "It's going to be difficult for Manny. It is difficult for him, but I took it out of his hands. I wasn't going to move forward the way it was going."
Malhotra wasn't available for comment Thursday, but it didn't sound like he agreed completely with his general manager's decision.
"He's a hockey player," Gillis said. "He believe in himself … but he understood. He understood entirely where I was coming from and he knew that there were times where circumstances that occurred in the course of game where he was at much higher risk."
Asked if Malhotra's career was over after 108 goals and 278 points in 14 NHL seasons with the New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks and Canucks, Gillis couldn't answer.
"Manny is an extremely proud guy who is extremely stubborn," Gillis said. "A lesser person wouldn't have even come back from what he has endured. There are points I felt he shared my opinion and points I felt he didn't, but I had to make the decision."
It's one that hit teammates hard, though Gillis has asked Malhotra to stay on with the organization and players could easily envision him staying active in some type of coaching capacity. He remained with the team during the 2011 run to the Final, traveling during the playoffs and even taking part in penalty-kill meetings.
"It's tough to hear; he means a lot to our team and brings a lot on the ice but even more so off the ice," captain Henrik Sedin said. "He's been almost like a coach for a lot of the guys in here. He sees a lot of things on the ice, he's a calming influence on this dressing room and he's meant a lot to the leadership group and the rest of the team."
Gillis hoped to discuss Malhotra's future options in the coming days.
"He's a very proud guy and he had goals and they won't be fulfilled on the ice," Gillis said, "But hopefully they will be fulfilled off the ice."