TORONTO – Manny Malhotra has just been tossed the keys to a Ferrari.
The Toronto Maple Leafs offence — one of the youngest, fastest and most combustible front engines hockey has to offer — will have a fresh set of hands tinkering under the hood.
The club announced Thursday its hiring of the former player to Sheldon Keefe’s bench, where the 991-game NHL veteran will fill the role vacated by Paul McFarland at the conclusion of the season.
Malhotra arrives in Toronto with the blessing of the Vancouver Canucks, the club he served as an “eye in the sky” assistant during games while working on-ice in development for three seasons.
“Manny’s such an awesome guy. He really cares about each individual he works with on the ice,” Vancouver’s Brock Boeser told reporters. “I’m really happy for Manny, and I think he’s going to do a great job.”
Upon learning of his promotion to bench coach, we caught up with an excited Malhotra over the phone Thursday afternoon for a quick, 10-minute chat about his new gig and the philosophy he’s taken from those who coached him.
SPORTSNET.CA: The Maple Leafs weren’t the only team that asked permission from the Canucks to speak with you. What factored into your decision to come here? How much did an emotional pull of returning to the Toronto area play into it?
MANNY MALHOTRA: Growing up in Toronto there is, you obviously understand the gravitational pull that the Leafs have on the community. So, that was somewhat weighed into my decision. But more so, after speaking to Sheldon and Kyle [Dubas] about the opportunity and the role here and where the group was and where they were headed, I felt it was a great opportunity to advance my coaching career with a really good organization, with a really good staff, and then a team that has been trending in the right direction. All of those things factored in for me. But it was a great opportunity to advance, I felt.
SN: What was the greatest thing you learned from your role in Vancouver?
MM: I learned a great deal from Travis in terms of the way to think the game. I keep saying how detail-oriented he is as a coach. His ability to analyze things. Even the most minute things that you wouldn’t think would be an issue or come into a play, then all of a sudden you see it happening two or three or four times in a game, and it’ll be the difference in a game. You learn that you can’t leave any stone unturned, as a coach.
But the other thing for me, I’ve learned that it’s not always about the X’s and O’s with players.
Each individual is different. They all learn differently. They’re all motivated by different things. So, it’s important for me to understand the person and get to know them as an individual to find out who they are, what’s their makeup before we can get into the X’s and O’s of the game. That’s a big thing for me, the communication aspect of things. And from there, you learn how to get information to players. That’s part of coaching that I really enjoyed, learning about guys and learning what makes them tick.
SN: How significant is the advantage for you, at 40 years old, not being so far removed from your own playing days?
MM: It definitely does help in a certain regard, in terms of knowing what players might be thinking in certain situations on the ice, or knowing what they may be going through at a certain time of the year. But there’s definitely been a switch for me from thinking as a player, which is incredibly advantageous, being in and around the guys and knowing what they’re going through. But it’s important to think like a coach and think beyond the right now. You’re thinking ahead. You’re thinking, two, three days ahead. You’re thinking to the next shift, to the next period. So, there has been a shift, but that player mentality will always come in helpful.
SN: I imagine you’ve done some studying of the Leafs’ offence and their power play in particular. What areas do you see for improvement? Can you give an example of one idea you can bring to the table?
MM: It’s been a very quick four or five days [of switching focus to Toronto from Vancouver]. And not having had a chance to see too much film on the team, it’s tough to give a definitive answer. Looking from the outside, obviously, you recognize the talent of the group and the potential of the group. What I want to get into in the next few weeks is just looking at that video, understanding a little bit more about their game and how we can improve and where we can improve. A lot of that comes from discussions with Sheldon and Hak [assistant Dave Hakstol] and then seeing where those improvements can take place.
SN: Have you had many coaching discussions with your brother-in-law Steve Nash? And were you at all surprised he took the Brooklyn Nets job?
MM: No, I wasn’t surprised. I have a lot of really good talks with both him and his [younger] brother Martin, who’s a soccer coach, and both of them are incredibly intelligent when it comes to sports and understanding not just the X’s and O’s but philosophies and concepts and ideas and traits of successful people. So, I’ve found a lot of help in just chatting with those guys. Obviously it’s different sports, but there’s a lot of things that carry over to sports in general that we discuss.
Who’s the best coach you ever had?
MM: I go back and forth a little bit. I will say Ken Hitchcock is one of the most intelligent hockey people I’ve ever come across. Part of that is the fact that he’s never played the game at a high level. To be able to understand the game the way he has, never being in those situations, is remarkable. And then playing for Todd McLellan, he also had that really in-depth knowledge of the game. But his communication skills, for me, are what set him apart from a lot of coaches. His ability to make you understand things very clearly and concisely. There’s no grey area with him, and for that reason, I felt he was one of the better coaches that I’ve ever played for.
One day down the road, do you see yourself as a head coach in the NHL? Is that the ultimate goal?
MM: Step by step. I want to experience this. Like I said, this is the next step in my growth. I had a great chance to be the eye in the sky here in Vancouver. I learned a great deal. This is the next step, the next chapter. I want to do as good as a job as I can here in this role and maximize that. For me, the focus is right now and doing a good job at the role that has been given to me.