The Curious Case of Zbynek Michalek

I have said that the Penguins would be wise to trade Zbynek Michalek this offseason. Others disagree with me. But I think there are a lot of mitigating factors that get in the way of what Big Z means to the Penguins compared to what he could mean to other teams.

I’m not saying this because I don’t like Z or because I don’t think he’s a good player. I don’t think that of Paul Martin either, I think they both got paid fair market contracts for what they are capable of doing and what role they could have on a given team. I mean it’s a cold hard fact that Michalek was one of my absolute favorite defensemen when he played in Phoenix, and I literally had heart palpitations when I heard that Ray Shero had worked a little magic and brought him to Pittsburgh. What it boils down to though is that Michalek does not play well in front of Marc Andre Fleury. Get the “More” after the jump.

I think the difference between Z in Phoenix and Z in Pittsburgh is the goaltender that he played in front of. During the Pens series with the Flyers we got to see the most we’ve likely ever seen from Ilya Bryzgalov, the primary goalie Michalek played in front of in Phoenix. Watching Bryzgalov for 6 straight games showed some things about the way he plays goal. He is really pretty much a beast in the cage. He’s absolutely enormous and he’s not afraid to use his size to clear out opposing players standing in front of him. What he struggles with is his athleticism. His side to side reaction time has to be slower than mine, and by the time he gets his enormous frame moving, any halfway skilled NHL player could make a pass and bury one into a more or less wide-open cage. To compensate for this lack of athleticism, the Coyotes and now the Flyers needed to cultivate a very specific type of defensemen. They need defensemen who can play the puck, instead of the man. Enter Zbynek Michalek. His reputation as a shot-blocker is well earned; he led the league in 2009 with 271 blocks, a little better than 3.25 shots per game. Those are monster numbers, but I really believe that that is a more important statistic when you have a big less agile goalie, like Ilya Bryzgalov, or for that matter, Martin Broudeur, as was the case for Paul Martin’s career prior to joining the Penguins. The emphasis isn’t on stopping guys from having shots or clearing out what’s ahead of them, it’s all about stopping the opposing team from finding rebounds, and working on clearing the puck. I do believe that Z and Martin are both good at that.

But that isn’t the order of business in Pittsburgh. It isn’t about playing hands off defense. From the day the Penguins hired Ray Shero and through the first several years of the Dan Bylsma era the mantra for the Penguins has always been, “we want to be a team that is just flat out hard to play against.” When the Pens have been at their best, they have had stifling and punishing defense. That’s how it was when the Pens went on their magical Cup run in 2009. Bylsma has always preached shut-down defense. Defensive position coach Todd Reirdon, the other half of the vaunted “Twin Towers” in St. Louis along with Chris Pronger, would know something about playing physical defense, and I don’t think his hiring was incidental. Despite all that, there have been many times over the last two years where Z has been absolutely unwilling to actually play the man and make the hit that matters. Throughout the entire series against the Flyers you could always find Z already lined up behind his own blueline before the Flyers even completely controlled the puck in their own zone. This refusal to attack the puck carrier led to innumerable odd man breaks for the Flyers who were overwhelmingly effective at capitalizing.

It gets overshadowed, but that’s how it was in the early 90s too. Despite the reputation of the Penguins of the 90s as one of the greatest offensive powers in NHL history, they only won the Cup in 91 and 92 because they could also shut opponents down at a whim. The Pens failed to get out of the Conference Finals in 96 and 01 because they weren’t able to deliver on the defensive side. That’s how it was in 2010, which is what prompted the Penguins to seek out the services of Michalek and Martin in the first place. It looked like the defensive issues were addressed in the 2010-11 season, when, although the Penguins lost in the first round, it was because of their lack of offense, without either Malkin or Crosby, but I think other factors influenced the Penguins regular season. The first of which was MAF, more often than not he stood on his own. The second of which was Jordan Staal, Craig Adams, and the rest of the penalty killers.

Now we’re back to square one. If you want to shake things up on this team you need to get tougher. The easiest way to get tougher is to trade away BOTH of the defensemen on your team who won’t play tough. Again, I’m a huge fan of Z as a hockey player, but I also know that ultimately he doesn’t fit in this system. For both the Penguins as a franchise and Z making a move can only be good.

A few other things:

Some people seem to be of the mind that you can only trade either Martin or Michalek this offseason. I think that is ridiculous. Following their 2010 Cup win the Blackhawks traded away something like 8 roster players in one offseason. Just last year the Flyers traded away their two highest paid players. The Penguins can find takers for two Olympians with a $4 million and $5 million cap hit annually. Absolutely guaranteed.

I’ve thought of a Jordan Staal trade I would take. The Pens trade Staal and Martin to Nashville for Ryan Suter and the rights to Paul Gaustad. Suter and Staal each have one year left on their current contracts, but Suter currently makes more. We get Suter, a super gritty, physical defenseman and the rights (he is a pending UFA) to a guy, in Gaustad, who has been THE best faceoff guy in the league the last two years and with enough offensive talent to replace Staal. In return the Predators get the top-line forward they’ve been missing for the last decade, they’ll also get a top 4 caliber defensemen to replace the hole(s) made by the departure of Suter and potentially Shea Weber via free agency as well.

The best player in the world, huh? It really amazes me how less good the Flyers are when they play teams that aren’t the Pens. They clearly did forget that you have to win 12 more games before you win the Stanley Cup. Now they have gone out of the playoffs, self-destructing even more thoroughly than the Penguins. Culprit number one has to be NBC’s best player ever, Claude Giroux. In the four games he did play in in this series Giroux only managed to produce 3 points, a little different than the 14 points he had against the Pens in 6 games. But not only did he fail to pick up his team in the face of adversity, he ended up getting himself suspended for his team’s elimination game. Let’s be real, being the best player in the world isn’t just about putting up points, it’s about how you handle things, and what we know is that Giroux is a clown. Could you ever see Crosby or Malkin or even Ovechkin, for all of his douchey above the law antics, make such a stupid play at such a critical time for their team? Giroux just wanted an extra day to start preparing his golf swing.

Wow how awful is Pierre McGuire? Seriously? I mean if there are not better commentators for the NHL to hire, they should just go without them, seriously, I nearly threw up listening to his ridiculous drivel.

The Conference Semi-Finals can be over as early as tomorrow, we’ll what the future holds but this is definitely a new season for the NHL.


2 Comments on “The Curious Case of Zbynek Michalek”

  1. […] and of course I’ve written about this before, and I don’t want to say I told you so, but I did. You can challenge the decision, you can challenge Shero, but I’m stoked on this decision, […]

  2. […] hits without garnering penalties (he TOOK 6 hits/game against Philly in the playoffs last year). And as I’ve spent a lot of time explaining in the past, he’s actually not very good at anything except blocking shots, and even at that Paul Martin […]

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