And here it is.
The Hurricanes signed the 33-year-old veteran center to a one-year, two-way contract on Thursday afternoon. Malhotra had previously logged eight games with the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ AHL affiliate, on a professional tryout contract.
“I’ve never taken a day for granted in this league. I truly love coming to the rink, and I enjoy every minute that I’m here,” he said after the morning skate on Friday. “I love being a part of a team, and I just have to make the most of every opportunity. I’ve been given a great opportunity here in Carolina, and I want to prove them right.”
Malhotra, a veteran of 864 regular-season games in the NHL, took an errant puck in the eye during a game in March 2011. He would return, almost miraculously, for six games in the Stanley Cup Final that June, reminiscent of Erik Cole’s return from a broken neck in the last two games of the 2006 Final.
Malhotra went on to play 78 games in the following season, but only logged nine games in the shortened 2012-13 season before being shut down by Vancouver management, as they cited health concerns from his eye injury.
From there, the future looked bleak.
“I always believe. I believe in myself. My family believed in me. I knew that I still had the ability to contribute something to a team,” Malhotra said. “In free agency, nothing came up. It was a long summer from that standpoint. And even as the season began, things started to get a bit dimmer. But I always believed that it was going to happen, that an opportunity would be available somewhere.”
That opportunity finally came in the form of a professional tryout contract with the Checkers in early October, what would end up being the first stepping stone in Malhotra’s path back to the NHL.
“The number one thing is we wanted to make sure we’re not putting him in a bad situation health-wise, that he feels comfortable playing the game at the NHL level,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “That was the first priority.”
And as far as his eye is concerned, though it’s not what it used to be prior to the injury, it’s just fine.
“It’s great. I keep telling everybody that it’s not what it was and never will be, but it’s fine, and I’m accustomed to what I do have,” Malhotra said. “To hear the confidence of Dr. Stanley Chang, the leading foremost expert in eye trauma to say he sees no reason why I shouldn’t be playing, that puts a little bit more confidence in me.”
Add Malhotra to the list of former teammates now playing under the tutelage of Kirk Muller. The two skated on the same line in Dallas in the last two years of Muller’s career, but Malhotra stopped short of calling Muller the old guy.
“I wouldn’t say it like that. He’s my coach now, so I can’t say that,” he said, smiling. “We were both younger”
“When I played with him, I was the old guy,” Muller said. “I knew that he was the guy who would take my job. I knew, and I was happy. We had a great relationship.”
“He was an awesome teammate. He was always there for the guys, always in a good mood and happy to be at the rink. That’s an example of what a great teammate should be,” Malhotra said. “He was always a very intelligent player. Even as a player he was pointing things out to me and saying what I could have done better, seeing reads and telling me what could happen on the ice.”
Malhotra, sporting the No. 22 with the Hurricanes, will center the fourth line with Drayson Bowman and Brett Sutter on either side of him.
So, what to expect in his first game at the NHL level since Feb. 9?
“A hat trick,” Muller quipped.
“Simplicity. To go out, win a couple key faceoffs, be an extra penalty killer,” Muller continued. “He’s just getting back into it, but I see his value in the room, once he gets comfortable, being huge.”
“The first one is always important just in terms of going out there and earning the respect of my teammates,” Malhotra said. “Putting my best foot forward and show them that I’m willing to do whatever to help this team.”