Sunday, November 03, 2013

Gretzky on Malhotra for Bure: "I would not have retired"

Earlier this week, the Hurricanes made the announcement that Manny Malhotra was back in the NHL. Or at least on a two-way contract. As a result, fans on the West Coast couldn't be happier. For Vancouver, the love affair with Manny traces back to 2010, when he was first signed from Columbus as a free agent.

But as the under-explored story goes, Malhotra was nearly a Canuck long before 2010. With Vancouver still reeling from Bure night, the connection traces all the way back to the Russian Rocket's trade away from the West Coast in 1999.

As you know, Bure went to Florida, in exchange for a package that centred around Ed Jovanovski and Nathan Smith the promise of a first-round draft pick. A year after the trade, however, then-Canucks GM Brian Burke commented on a proposed that would have sent Bure to the Rangers instead. 

Similar to the actual return from Florida, the ask was centered around a very promising and high-profile young player, an 18-year-old rookie who was already centering a line for the Rangers named Manny Malhotra. 

Much like Kassian-Hodgson, Malhotra would have likely had to endure
a lifetime of comparison to the Rocket had the Rangers pulled the trigger in 1999.
Fresh off the draft floor, Malhotra was to be packaged along with -- wait for it -- Dan Cloutier, Niklas Sundstrom and a first-round draft pick. Burke stated that he himself wouldn't have made the deal if he were Rangers GM Neil smith, whose only hesitation in pulling the trigger was letting Malhotra go. 

In retrospect, Burke would in all likelihood retract his statement and Smith would have ultimately obliged the original offer. The expectation in New York was for Malhotra to become the next Adam Graves -- a two-way player who would routinely pot 30 goals on the second line. 

As loved as many was on the West Coast many years later, Malhotra never had that sort of offensive flair at any point in his NHL career. He struggled mightily in his second season with New York and head coach John Muckler even went so far as to suggest that he would never develop into anything more than a third-line center. As prophetic as this was, at the time, it was quite derogatory. 

So while the guy whose projected upside prevented the Rangers from acquiring Bure was returned to junior the following season, Bure was in the process of putting up 58 goals on a pretty marginal Panthers team in 1999-2000. 

Perhaps worst of all, only months into his retirement, the Great One himself, declared that he would have continued playing had the Rangers been able to spring for Bure. For a player who played with a rotation of centres that included Anatoli Semenov and Viktor Kozlov during his career, imagine what kind of numbers Bure might have put up playing alongside Wayne Gretzky in New York.

Bure's back-to-back 50-goal seasons during his tenure in Florida can hardly be seen as a what-could-have-been scenario. But the thought of Gretzky feeding Bure breakout passes in the neutral zone or finding him behind the net to unleash shots like these is truly frightening. 

As you can rightly imagine, Bure responded to Gretzky's comments, stating that it was "the greatest compliment [he] received or ever will receive in [his] life."

The Rangers, of course, finally got their man in 2002 when Florida flipped him to the Big Apple for a package of prospects and picks -- though Gretzky had long since retired and Bure's knees inevitably gave out within a year.

Meanwhile, the Canucks got their man, as well. And at a time when the expectation for Manny had finally leveled out. As such, he was truly appreciated for his role in the organization, as short as it was.

Kind of like Bure was last night, I suppose. After all, it hasn't been since Manny's return in the 2011 Finals that Rogers Arena has chanted anyone's name so loudly.

-HC


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