RALEIGH — The NHL on Wednesday will announce the three finalists for the Masterton Trophy, which honors perseverance and dedication to hockey. The Carolina Hurricanes’ Manny Malhotra may or may not be among them. He should be, because he’s everything the award is supposed to honor.
Malhotra’s late arrival to the Hurricanes this season and subsequent success was clearly the most inspiring story in an otherwise disheartening season for the franchise. Told last spring by the Vancouver Canucks that his career was finished because of a serious injury to his left eye, Malhotra refused to accept that fate.
He fought his way back to the NHL this season, starting out in the minors before his call-up to the Hurricanes, and had a very effective season as a fourth-line center and faceoff specialist, taking on a leadership role for a team that desperately needed veteran guidance.
“This whole year, I’ve enjoyed it moreso from that perspective of having it taken away from me,” Malhotra said. “Getting back to this position, being a part of a team, being out there again has been a great experience.”
While he’ll turn 34 in May, Malhotra isn’t done yet, although he is a free agent and the Hurricanes have yet to decide whether they will bring him back.
“For me, it wasn’t just a one-and-done, to come back and prove I could still play,” Malhotra said. “It’s wanting to continue my career.”
It’s hard to predict the Masterton winner at times because it has, over the past decade or so, morphed into a contest to see who can come back from the worst injury. For a long time, the Masterton was often given as a career achievement award for players whose careers call for further recognition, even if this is the only trophy they’ll ever have a chance to win.
Adam Graves (2001) and Steve Yzerman (2003) were the last winners whose careers were honored. Candidates in that vein this year would include Ryan Smyth, Ray Whitney and Teemu Selanne, the latter not even nominated for the award by the writers who cover the Anaheim Ducks.
Sometimes, as in the case of Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding, who won last season for playing through multiple sclerosis, there’s a clear case to be made. Dominic Moore of the New York Rangers is the likely winner this year and a deserving one, returning to hockey after sitting out a season to deal with the tragic loss of his wife to cancer.
By either criteria, Malhotra fits: a seventh-overall pick who didn’t meet expectations, never scoring more than 12 goals in a season, but carved out a role for himself through hard work, bouncing among five different teams before the Canucks told him he was finished. His refusal to accept that judgment and continue playing for a sixth defines perseverance and dedication.
“There was always something different about him,” said Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison, who has known Malhotra since they were teenagers in Ontario. “He had this extra spark, this extra drive despite his talent at a young age.
“He still worked harder than the rest of the guys. He still had this passion, this spark, that you didn’t see every day. It’s the same thing you see today that’s allowed him to accomplish what he’s accomplished through the adversity he’s gone through.”
Malhotra may not win the Masterton. There’s no doubt he embodies everything it’s supposed to represent.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947