Line shakeups are nothing new to Manny Malhotra. As a 10-year vet in the league, the big center has been thrust into a variety of situations, the latest of which involves playing the middle on the Jackets' top unit.
But there is a down side to the opportunity. Malhotra's been lining up with Columbus' most skilled players, guys like captain Rick Nash and gifted winger Kristian Huselius. Getting such a close up view of that kind of talent makes it easy to become a spectator.
"I guess I have to make sure I don't catch myself watching too much," Malhotra kids. "It's so fun to watch some of the moves that Juice can make or when Nasher takes two guys to the net on his back."
The Jackets' faithful shouldn't really worry about Malhotra's focus. The Mississauga, Ontario native has been a reliable soldier for head coach Ken Hitchcock and the recent rash of injuries, particularly to breakout center Derick Brassard, has meant that his services are required elsewhere. The bonus is more ice and more opportunity – and Malhotra has responded with a multi-point game on the road in Colorado and a rock solid +4 rating in the past six games.
"You talk to any player in the league and they'll say the more ice you get, the more you feel into the game," he says. "By just getting that much more ice, it's helped me be more focused in games and feel that much more involved.
"The biggest thing I try to keep in mind is that I don't try to change my game when I play with guys like Nash and Huselius. Hitch wants me to be responsible defensively, being strong in the D zone, getting those guys the puck and being a worker. I try to focus on continuing to play that style."
The coach has liked what he's seen from his veteran. Hitchcock thinks Malhotra has been solid of late, displaying all of the elements of any good leader.
"I like the way he's doing things," says Hitchcock. "It's a good sign."
Malhotra is clear that he doesn't see the bump up to the top units as a promotion. It's simply a new assignment, one that helps in terms of confidence. When the coach has put him in key situations, like taking big draws, being on the PK and moving him up to the top lines, he says it has instilled more confidence in him.
Whatever line he centers, Malhotra has continued to be a beast in the face off circle. He's one of the NHL's best in that department, ranking fifth overall in the league by winning 58.6 percent of his draws. Malhotra's also 13th in the league in a crucial faceoff stat – draws won while short-handed.
He understands that winning in the circle is huge advantage for any hockey team.
"You want possession of the puck," says Malhotra. "I can either spend a second and a half out-working somebody on a face off or spend the next 15 seconds chasing the puck down.
It's much more effective to win draws and have possession of the puck so you're not on the defensive."
The importance of dominating in the circle is something Malhotra learned early in his NHL tenure. While playing with the New York Rangers, his assistant coaches Keith Acton, Charlie Huddy and current Edmonton Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish stressed the need to get possession of the puck. And they worked on it every day.
"That was Mac T's bread and butter," Malhotra says. "After practice, we would work on different situations, against righties, against lefties, doing different things. It started to really open my eyes as to how strong guys were, what kind of techniques they were using in the circle. From that point, I started watching faceoffs that much more closely."
It's evolved into an art form for the Jackets' vet. He studies tendencies, specifically in game situations to see what players are doing. And more often than not, he's the one coming out on top.
"I'll watch them take draws against different players, how they're doing against lefties, where they are on the ice," says Malhotra. "I take a more focused approach as to what's going on the ice as opposed to just putting your stick in there and hope for the best."
"Every night's a new challenge. I enjoy that aspect of it."