Lacing Up: Addition By Subtraction?
Matt Paul: Josh, we’re now on our 5th consecutive edition of “Lacing Up” and we’re going strong. I hope you’re enjoying the conversations as much as I am. Anyway, this week we’ll continue our analysis of the departed by examining Zbynek Michalek. Does it seem strange to you that between he and Paul Martin, he was the one to go? Sure, many will say that no one wanted Martin and so the Penguins had to do what they were capable of doing, but I don’t buy that. In fact, I have it on good authority that several teams, including the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators were quite interested in Martin, but that Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero wasn’t willing to deal him. So why, then, was he willing to deal “Z?” At first glance, he was more steady and reliable, was more consistent and solid, and cost less in real money and cap hit. In a vacuum, he would have been my choice to retain. But we don’t operate in a vacuum, do we, Josh?
Joshua Neal: Matt, for many different reasons, I am surprised that Michalek was the defenseman to be traded. In a lot of ways, Martin being traded made more sense – you’ve touched upon some of the reasons. Whereas Michalek was cheaper and more consistent, Martin was less appealing in both cost and performance. However, as you’ve also brought up, we don’t operate in a vacuum. In a mutually beneficial deal, Michalek was given the chance to return to his original team (and a better fitting system) and Shero and the Penguins were able to unload some cap space. One thing that Martin and Michalek did have in common though, is that both of their tenures with Pittsburgh (with Martin’s still being current) can be perceived as disappointments in their own respective realms. But I believe Michalek just wasn’t a fit for the system, especially not while paired with Martin. By putting Martin with a new partner, his subpar play could be corrected. However, I don’t believe “Z” played the Rob Scudieri-esque type of game that we were originally looking for when we signed him, and I think he was too big of a mismatch to keep. To talk about both issues here, Matt, I think we do need to discuss why Martin was worth keeping whereas Michalek was not (at least in Shero’s opinion). Your thoughts?
Matt: When Martin and Michalek were signed several years ago, both, along with Anton Volchenkov and Sergie Gonchar, were considered the best defensemen available on the free market. That neither player worked out as anticipated isn’t necessarily an indictment of the players, but possibly the system and coaching. But that’s another discussion for another Lacing Up. As for Martin, and why he was a better fit, I think the answer is simple. His game revolves around skating and stickwork, He’s not physical, he doesn’t block shots, and he doesn’t clear the crease. But what he does is use his skills to take the puck from the opponent and transition it to his offensive teammates quickly. Or at least that’s what he’s been sold as being capable of. So, long story short, Martin’s style is more in line with what the Penguins want/need on the blueline, and I truly believe they feel his tenure to date isn’t a reflection of the true player he is. But in order for him to become that top-tier puck-mover that he was touted as, he needs to be paired with someone who compliments his skills. As you said, Michalek did not, and as a result, Shero found a way to send him to a team he is comfortable playing with. How do you think that impacts the Penguins in terms of future signings?
Josh: I think that the signings of Martin and Michalek have something to do with the Penguins’ perceived “inactivity” on the free agent market this year. As we’ve talked about, Shero made the Jordan Staal trade because 1) he did not want to wait one year and lose Staal for nothing and 2) he got great value in return. Also, rather than making a huge move in free agency, Shero quietly went out and got Tanner Glass. Truly, the signings of Martin and Michalek are probably the two biggest moves Shero has made in the unrestricted free agent market – at least in my memory. The much more common way that Shero acquires a player is at the trade deadline, while Shero knows that often times the player is desirous to leave their city, and also has only a few years left on their contract. A “rental” as we have come to know it, Shero likes to experiment with a player before making a long term offer. Sometimes, this works (see: Bill Guerin, James Neal) and the player is resigned for another year or 5. Sometimes, it doesn’t (see: Alexei Ponikarovsky). However, I think that any hesitance to make a lucrative offer to a free agent that hasn’t played in the Penguins system has only been increased by Michalek and Martin’s general inability to live up to expectations. And, truth be told, hockey as a whole has suffered because of the absolutely insane amounts of money and length involved in contracts nowadays.
With defensemen, they sometimes say “If you’re doing your job well, no one knows you’ve done anything at all.” In a sendoff for Michalek, let’s cut against that grain and each of us share a favorite Michalek moment with the Penguins. Matt, what’s yours?
Matt: Josh, ordinarily, this would be an easy task. There are so many memorable Penguin moments from Michalek’s tenure. My problem? None of them involve Michalek. That has nothing to do with my feelings for the Czech defender, but rather his ability to stay under the radar most of the time. He just isn’t the type of player who does much, if anything, flashy enough to stand out. There’s something to be said for that, though, as it has been an attribute used to earn big bucks for himself, as well as other defenders, such as Rob Scuderi. But, if I have to pick one thing that I think fondly of with regard to Michalek, it is his underutilized and underrated slap shot from the point. He didn’t cock the gun often, but when he did, it was a cannon that had the ability to find the back of the net. No, he didn’t score many goals with the Penguins, but the Braveheart video that played when did was gold, Jerry, pure gold! (Seinfeld reference)
Josh: Matt, exactly what I had in mind. Michalek is definitely a quiet hockey player, in his game both on- and off-ice. Michalek had gone 70-something games without a goal, then scored a few goals within a 3- or 4-game span. He was always good for putting the puck on net, though he got big money for essentially becoming the team’s shot-blocking defenseman. Jay McKee was much cheaper. Okay, so Michalek was definitely better than McKee, but he’s wasn’t a good enough fit to work the way Rob Scudieri did in our system. I think that wraps us up on Michalek. Matt, always a pleasure. Until next week, when we take on the departures of four role players.