I watched the Leafs play the Rangers on MSG shortly after the Dion Phaneuf trade, and I was struck by the Rangers' broadcasters take on the deal. They talked about the surprise of Colin Greening, who was out there on the ice outplaying the Rangers comprehensively in that game and scoring a goal; they ignored Jared Cowen; and they talked about Milan Michalek in tones of deep respect and curiosity about his potential on the Leafs. They thought he was the most interesting part of the trade, and I agree with them.
Michalek is scheduled to make his debut as a Leaf tonight, after arriving injured, and he's been seen at practice playing left wing on a line with Peter Holland and Brad Boyes.
Who is he?
He's a big guy and has been a decent scorer over the years with a clutch of 20+ goal seasons and points totals often over 50. For a long time he was the top winger on the Senators.
But the conventional wisdom is that he's used himself up banging bodies and he's not what he once was. Well, who is? But what was he once?
Michalek is Czech and played for his club team, HC Ceske Budejovice until he was drafted. He played up through the junior teams at his club, always playing with older kids, and he made the men's team full time at 17. When he was 18 he played in the World Junior Championships and had 4 points in 6 games.
And then he moved to California, where he had an unusual bit of luck to start his NHL career with the Sharks. He played two games for them his rookie year, seriously injured his knee and sat out most of the season. He came back in the AHL and hurt the knee again after 7 games. The next year was the lockout year, and he just took the whole year off for rehab, and came back fully healed.
He played four solid years for the Sharks, putting up at least 20 goals in three of them, played on the top line with Joe Thornton for his last year and was given a very lucrative contract extension. And then in 2009, the Sharks traded him for Dany Heatley. We know how that worked out for the Sharks, but how did it go at the other end where there was no Joe Thornton for Michalek to play with?
Michalek played a lot of good seasons for the Senators, had some injuries, and as you should expect, has dropped in production over the years.
He started out doing exactly what he'd done in San Jose, reliably scoring around 20 goals. And then in 2011-2012, when he was 26, he played most of the year with Jason Spezza and wait for it...Colin Greening, and they were fabulous. Michalek had 39 goals, Greening had 17 and Spezza had 40. They also had excellent shot differentials showing a Corsi For at 5-on-5 of 52.6% as a group. Michalek was a fan ballot winner and was selected to the All-Star game that year.
This did not last. Michalek had abdominal surgery just as the lockout happened, and while he played back home, his performance for Ottawa after was nothing like it had been. He played primarily with the fading Daniel Alfredsson in his last year as a Senator.
Michalek was back with Spezza the next year and it was a good year, but the reliable 20+ goal man had become a 15+ goal man.
With Spezza gone to Dallas and younger forwards moving up the depth chart in Ottawa, last year Michalek played the middle chunk of the season with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Alex Chiasson. They were good, the points were there, the shot differential was positive. He finished the year with Kyle Turris and Mark Stone, and they were better—everything Mark Stone touched at the end of last year went in the net, so that had something to do with it.
This year has been a different story. He's broken his hand twice, and is just coming off IR, but at the start of the year, he was looking good scoring wise with Pageau and Chiasson as a third line. In between IR stints he was with Mika Zibanejad and Mike Hoffman or Bobby Ryan as the first/second line. That section of games had better shot differentials on a team that is usually outshot, but they didn't score. It's not terribly surprising that the Senators decided his ability was waning too fast to justify his pay cheque.
But has it waned? How much of his poor results were the changing linemates and freak injuries? Is Michalek worn out, used up and useless, or does he need the right system, the right linemates and a team that hasn't built up a historical set of expectations he can't meet? Does he, in other words, just need to be put into a position to succeed.
Is he next year's Grabner? A guy who can show what he can do and then the market will decide? Or is he a useful veteran professional who can play with talented younger players and be a positive influence like Brooks Laich.
Why not both? Watch him as the season winds down and decide what you think he can be as a Leaf.
In the meantime, check out his fairly bemused response to the way the Leafs expect players to train, no matter how experienced they are: