Manny Malhotra providing key leadership for young Canadiens

MONTREAL -- With the Montreal Canadiens up a goal against the Boston Bruins in the third period Thursday night, Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien sent Manny Malhotra out for a defensive-zone faceoff Malhotra easily won over Gregory Campbell.

Chalk another one up for the veteran center, whose addition July 1 might end up paying way more dividends for the Canadiens than people first bargained.

For starters, Malhotra is among the league's top faceoff men, which will improve the team's defensive-zone start numbers. Through five games, he's won 65 percent of his faceoffs.

But his impact might be just as important off the ice, where he's already made himself one of the most vocal leaders on the team despite being a newcomer.

"Right from the first preseason game, he was a guy that was stepping up, and you could tell right away he was a vocal leader," Habs winger Brendan Gallagher told ESPN.com after Montreal's 6-4 win over the Bruins on Thursday night.

"And obviously being able to play the way he does, that helps. He's a great guy, he's not shy to come up to you and give you pointers. So far he's been great for me."

It was similar to a comment star goalie Carey Price made last week when asked who was speaking up in the room before the game and between periods with the departure of vocal leader Josh Gorges and captain Brian Gionta in the offseason.

"Manny Malhotra," Price said, without any hesitation.

Long after everyone had cleared the dressing room Thursday night, I sat down with Malhotra, and he looked a little sheepish when asked about having such a strong vocal presence despite being a new guy.

"I think it's just a part of being a veteran, is feeling confident and comfortable to speak your mind in the room," said Malhotra, 34. "Saying what you want to say when you want to say it. That hasn't changed for me. Obviously, I'm never trying to step on anyone's toes. But at the same time, if I see something, I'm going to say it. That's just part of who I am as a player."

Given how the Habs got younger in the offseason, his leadership presence is more than welcomed.

On the ice, he's a key addition to the penalty kill.

For a one-year deal worth $850,000, he's a bargain indeed.

"Great faceoff guy obviously, which is no small thing," said one NHL scout who was watching Thursday night's game. "Solid character guy. As an older player, your legs get heavy a bit when you don't get as many minutes as you are used to, so that's one adjustment for him, playing a fourth-line role. But he's a solid role player. Good pickup for them."

And to think there are many who thought his career was over after the Vancouver Canucks placed him on season-ending injury reserve during the 2012-13 season, with former general manager Mike Gillis at the time explaining the decision by saying the club was concerned it was too dangerous for Malhotra to play with his limited vision as a result of the left-eye injury suffered in March 2011.

Malhotra strongly disagreed with that assertion and vowed to return. But the phone was quiet in summer 2013. All he got was an AHL tryout with the Carolina Hurricanes' farm team, which he turned into an NHL contract with the Hurricanes last season. A terrific comeback story.

Looking back, he'd rather focus on thanking Carolina for getting a chance rather than revisit his exit out of Vancouver.

"It's in the past for me, it really is," Malhotra said. "I've put that to bed. Last summer was really trying. The stress of not knowing whether I would ever get that chance. I'm extremely grateful to the Hurricanes organization for giving me that opportunity to prove myself again. But I knew in my head and in my heart that I was still a player."

The Habs were certainly convinced, and team executive Rick Dudley talked to Malhotra's agent at the draft in Philadelphia when the free-agent window opened to speak to other teams.

"I got excited, I spoke with my wife about that opportunity as well as other calls we were getting," Malhotra said. "We had the opportunity to weigh everything."

The phone then rang at 12:01 p.m. July 1, and it was Montreal.

"It was a no-brainer," Malhotra said of accepting Montreal's offer.

Mind you, Malhotra grew up a Bruins fan, so it's not as though he was fulfilling a childhood dream.

On the other hand, he had always been amazed at what it was like to play in the Bell Centre as an opposing player.

"Coming here as a visitor before, there was always that energy, the nerves that come along with playing in this building. But to have these fans on your side now, it's a special experience,” he said. "The Habs are a religion here, they love their hockey.

"It's a special feeling being part of this team. I remember always looking at the rafters as a visiting player and seeing all the names, it's the who's who of the Hall of Fame. The champions that have been here. The first time I walked into the dressing room at our practice rink, you saw all the pictures of the former captains, winners, Hall of Famers, you feel pretty special to be part of that fabric."

It helps to speak the language of choice in this province, too. Malhotra's French is terrific, not bad for a guy who grew up in English-speaking Mississauga, Ontario.

Turns out his mother is from just outside Levis, Quebec; his siblings were born in Quebec before his family moved to Ontario, where Manny was born.

"We'd go back and visit family in Quebec every summer, and I couldn't understand what my relatives were saying, so I told my mom, 'I got to learn and find out what's going on,'" Malhotra said. "Over the course of the years, I just picked up more and more."

His French is good, and more importantly, his vision is OK, Malhotra said.

"I never put a number on it, but it's good enough," he said. "I see everything. I just can't read a newspaper anymore, the fine print stuff. It's as if someone who wears glasses forgets to put them on. It's not the fine detail that you see. Other than that, I see everything fine."

He simply needed to be patient and allow for the needed time to adjust.

"That’s exactly what it was," Malhotra said. "Through the course of my recovery and rehab, I was in constant contact with Bryan Berard [who also suffered a scary eye injury]. One of the things he told me was, 'Be patient, it's going to come back. And eventually what you know as far as spacial awareness and vision, it just becomes the norm.' So that's where I'm at now."

He's at peace, that's where Manny Malhotra is now.