After assisting in negotiations during the NHL lockout, the Vancouver Canucks centre is setting out to earn a new deal of his own. But he is putting any possible contract talks with general manager Mike Gillis on hold as the team prepares for the opening of a shortened season.
"The play comes first," said Malhotra. "My focus is strictly on performing to the best of my ability and helping the team any way that I can and any way that I'm asked."
But this is still a crucial season for Malhotra, who is playing out the final campaign on a three-year deal after two seasons of considerable adversity.
"Nothing changes as a player," insisted Malhotra, a 32-year-old veteran who served on the NHL Players Association's negotiating committee.
"Every year, your focus is the same. It's to contribute as much and as best you can to whatever the team needs you to do. That's not going to change this year."
He had to deal with a career-threatening eye injury in 2010-11, a summer of follow-up surgical procedures that limited his usual rigorous summer training program and then another long layoff during the lockout that lasted about four months.
But true to form, Malhotra, who has been a popular figure with teammates and fans since the day he arrived as a free agent from San Jose, downplayed his troubles.
"Like everyone facing adversity, it's been a challenge," said Malhotra. "It's just a matter of staying confident. ... Having positive people around me has been good, helping me train, helping me to get back to where I need to be, and helping me compete at the highest level."
The Mississauga, Ont., native made periodic trips to New York during the lockout, but stayed home at the end as his wife drew closer to delivering a baby. He is optimistic about having a strong bounceback season after producing seven goals and 11 assists while seeing limited minutes in a hybrid centre-wing role.
While often taking face-offs and ranking among league leaders in draws won, he patrolled the wing in primarily a fourth-line role as he struggled to regain the excellent conditioning that he had in the past. This season, it looks as though he will play the conventional centre role, again on the fourth line.
His comeback took on more significance Tuesday as it was learned winger David Booth will be out four to six weeks with a groin injury. Coach Alain Vigneault singled Malhotra out among players that he hopes will fill the scoring void created by Booth's absence from the second line. Malhotra indicated he is ready for any extra challenge — or playing time.
"This summer, I had an opportunity to train the way I normally would," Malhotra said. "Two summers ago, I didn't. Throughout the course of the lockout, we had our core group of guys, eight or nine at a time, that were able to skate three or four times a week, and it turned into skating with the UBC men's team.
"So that was great for our preparation as far as just being on the ice and practising as part of a team, so it definitely helped to be as ready as we can."
So far, Vigneault likes what he has seen of Malhotra after months of not having contact with him.
"Manny's played real well so far and come into camp in great shape, whereas last year, obviously, because of the operations he had in the summer, he couldn't train." said Vigneault. "This year, his conditioning is real good, and so far in practices, he's looked real comfortable. So I think that's a positive for us."
The coach praised Malhotra for putting team first despite serious eye problems that the forward has not fully disclosed.
"Manny is a quality individual, and everything he does is about the team and his teammates," said Vigneault. "Obviously, he had a real serious injury that he's handled — as well as anyone I've ever seen in my life."
Winger Aaron Volpatti, who has been playing alongside Malhotra on the fourth line, said the centre has served as source of inspiration as he battles back from his own serious injury. Volpatti is attempting a comeback after being sidelined last December with a shoulder injury.
He did not play in the minors during the lockout because the Canucks risked losing him on waivers if they tried to send him down, and bypassed lower-level European opportunities.
"He's a great mentor when it comes to (overcoming injuries)," said Volpatti. "My injury's not the same, but he's gone through a lot of adversity. For him to overcome that, it's pretty special."
As Malhotra continues his bounceback, he plans to let his play on the ice do his contract negotiating for him.
"That's usually the way it works," he said.
Notes: The Canucks will hold a simulated game day Wednesday with a morning skate, naps and night scrimmage. They will follow the same routine Thursday while preparing to start the regular season with back-to-back home games against Anaheim and Edmonton.