The 33-year-old center has two games under his belt since signing a professional tryout contract with the Checkers last Thursday, just a day before he entered the lineup. Though he’d been skating several times a week in Vancouver, where he was most recently employed, he’s admittedly still working to get back into the rhythm that only game action can set.
When that happens, he’s hoping he’ll be able to prove that he can still play in the NHL, as he’s done for a whopping 864 games over 13 seasons.
“My career’s not over, and I want to play until I no longer enjoy coming to the rink and feel like I can no longer contribute,” he said. “Those things haven’t happened yet.
“Last year I felt the same way, and me not playing was just Mike’s opinion.”
In making that comment, Malhotra was referring to the decision by Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis to place him on injured reserve last February, ending his season after nine games. Gillis said that he did so because he was concerned about the safety of Malhotra, who suffered a serious injury when a puck deflected into his eye nearly two full years earlier, permanently affecting his vision.
As he had done in the past, Malhotra, having just played his first two competitive games since last suiting up for the Canucks, made it clear that he does not share those concerns.
“That’s his opinion of the matter,” Malhotra reiterated of Gillis. “At no point do I feel like I’m in danger. I see hits coming. It was never a matter of how I feel, it was just his opinion.”
Since suffering the injury, Malhotra has undergone multiple corrective procedures and played a full NHL season in 2011-12, ranking fourth in the league in faceoff percentage (58.5). He even returned to compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs just months later.
“It’s never going to be the same as it was, much like any injury, but I’ve learned to use what I have,” he said.
Based on his first two performances with the Checkers, what he has now does not seem to be much different than what he had all along. Known as a premier defensive player and faceoff specialist, the seventh overall pick in the 1998 NHL draft made an immediate impact in both areas, most notably sacrificing his body to block key shots in both games against the Oklahoma City Barons.
It took even less time than that to make an impression on his coach.
“From day one at the morning skate, he was talking to his linemates about what they were going to do on faceoffs that night,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “He’s just a true pro.”
With Malhotra being the oldest and most experienced player to ever play for the Checkers, his teammates are taking advantage of the opportunity to listen.
“It’s huge,” said 22-year-old center Brody Sutter. “He’s one of the best at what he does, and he’s the perfect example of what I want to be - he’s really good defensively and can also chip in as a secondary scorer. I’ve been sticking around him as much as I can, and I’ve already learned a ton.”
“I enjoy that part of it,” said Malhotra, cracking a smile. “I remember what it was like to be in their shoes, asking a lot of questions, and it proves how much they want to get better and learn what it takes. I think that’s a really positive sign for this organization.”
As with any other tryout contract, it’s uncertain as to how long this one will last and how long those conversations will continue. If all goes well for Malhotra, he ends up back in the NHL in relatively short order, whether it’s with Carolina or another team that could end up being persuaded by a successful return to action.
Until then, he’ll continue to try to rediscover his game with Charlotte, a process that could actually be helped by what amounts to a second training camp as the team goes through an unprecedented 14-day break between games.
“There’s no replicating game action and I’d like to be in as many game situations as possible, but it’s good to get around the guys to build some chemistry and learn the system,” he said. “I guess it’s a blessing in disguise.”