Pens Preview: Zbynek Michalek

For those of you who know me, even remotely well, you know that Zbynek Michalek is my favorite player in the NHL. Not just my favorite Penguins player, but my overall favorite player in the entire NHL. I feel the need to address this notion of being a complete and total fanboy for no. 4, as it will be difficult to take a purely objective view of his play and what he brings to the team. I am going to try, but you may have to excuse some fanboy squealing.

When July 1, 2010 rolled around I don’t remember any people other than myself and one or two others banging the drum that Shero needed to sign a defenseman from the Phoenix Coyotes named “Zbynek Michalek.” Everyone recognized the last name because of Milan Michalek, currently a forward for the Ottawa Senators, known for scoring at least one unreal goal per season against the Pens. As a Western Conference player in a market not known for TV exposure, many Pens fans had no idea who or what a “Zbynek Michalek” was.

As the season began everyone was quick to write off both Michalek and Martin as busts because of spending $9M combined on the two. While I agree that the initial sticker shock is high, it really is a bargain when one considers the deals that defensmen got on the open market THIS July. Christian Ehrhoff was signed by the Buffalo Sabres to a 10-year, front loaded contract with an annual cap hit of $4M. While I understand the differences in the game being played by Ehrhoff and Michalek, the money comparison is…wow. If you really want to have a laugh, look at the contract that James Wisniewski was signed to by the Columbus Blue Jackets. 6 years at $5.5M per year. The talking heads in Pittsburgh have crowed that Paul Martin is a bust and overpaid (I completely and totally disagree, but that’s for a later post). Wisniewski finished the season as a -14 all while having recorded 51 points. Let that sink in for a minute. He finished a -14 while recording 51 points (only 10 goals). While Wis may be able to help CBJ’s PP (he did post 29 points on the PP last season), is it worth 5+ million?

As mentioned, I understand the differences in the games and responsibilities of the players are different. If one simply looks at the +/- rating of a player or a point total it can be grossly misleading. Michalek is a prime example, as his career +/- rating is -22, but you can clearly see where the numbers become skewed. -20 and -13 seasons with Phoenix will certainly move the numbers in that direction. As a stay-at-home defensive d-man, though, it’s respectable to hover around neutral +/- most seasons. For the sake of comparison, Brooks Orpik’s career +/- is a -1, and he’s played most of his career with guys like Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury, all of whom have a HUGE impact on +/- rating. Now that some comparisons have been made and my fandom has been brought to light, let’s take a look at the season of “Big Z,” Zbynek Michalek.

73GP, 5G, 14A, 19P, 0+/-, 30PIM, 104S, 4.8S%, 1PPG, 3PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 2GWG, 21:50TOI

Much like with Mr. Cooke, the stats do not tell the whole story. Michalek was hurt in the 3rd game of the season against the New Jersey Devils and missed substantial-but-not-season-crippling time. In his first three games as a Penguin, the Pens went 1-2, both losses coming when Z was a minus player. The lone victory came against the Devils and Michalek finished as a neutral in +/-, but only played 7 minutes and change. Z returned to action a few weeks later against the Dallas Stars, where he also was a minus player in a losing effort (the only reason that game is remembered is because of a certain Sidney Crosby getting into a fight with a certain Matt Niskanen). From here on out, it no longer became a coincidence that Michalek being a minus player typically translated into a Penguins loss.

After returning from injury the Pens records W/ Michalek in the line-up:

As a MINUS player: 6-14

As a neutral rating: 17-12

As a PLUS player: 20-1

When combined, when Michalek is neutral or a plus player, the Pens record was 37-13. I’m glossing over the OT records for the sake of simplicity. I’m just going straight win-loss, not factoring in loser points for the team. It is hard to deny the value of a player like Michalek, even though he doesn’t show up on the score sheet regularly. For the chattering class, though, it is easy to overlook how important players like Michalek are because they don’t put up James Wisniewski or Kris Letang like numbers on offense. With a guy like Michalek, it becomes difficult to review them outside of +/- rating, because these types of players do not put up huge offensive numbers, and in the age of Youtube there aren’t many highlight videos of shot blocking and boxing out opposition.

Overall +/-, in victories Michalek was a combined +22. Conversely, in combined losses he was a -22. The Pens also went undefeated in games when Michalek scored, going 5-0. At home, Michalek was a +3 on the season, while was a -3 on the season as the away team.

Obviously Michalek is integral as a shut-down defenseman. He is placed against the opposing team’s top scorers regularly and he and mate Paul Martin have done an extraordinary job of keeping those scorers in check and keeping Fleury from facing too many primo scoring chances. That said, when there has been a breakdown, both Michalek and Martin have done excellent jobs of recovering and helping out Fleury and/or the forwards who were back in the zone to help. We all remember only too well these moments from the game against the Kings this past season when Michalek saved the team not once but twice in the first period.

In the first case you can see Letang take his man, but nobody was covering Justin Williams. Michalek took away the cross crease play and moved in as Fleury moved out, saving a goal with some absolutely unreal stickwork. In the second play, well, Bob Errey does a fine job of explaining how Michalek played it perfectly. He stuck with the Kings player and prevented him from making a play by separating him from the puck then, either by luck or skill (or both, as it would seem with great players), cleared it from the crease with some help by Vitale showing some hustle. Everyone wet their pants (self included) when Scuderi made a play like that (granted, the stakes were a little higher then), but everyone just kinda goes catatonic when guys who didn’t grow up on the Pens farm do it.

In pure defensive stats, Michalek ranked 27th in the NHL in shot blocking, with 149 shots blocked,  had 56 hits, and 14 takeaways. Outside of shotblocking, the stats do not stand out as a killer or league leader, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being an all around defensive player is what is needed for your top-4.

Zbynek certainly had an interesting year on special teams, too. He was originally never planned to be used on the power play, but as the season went on and the injuries mounted, he became one of the steady hands on the PP, even scoring a PP goal and netting 3 PPA. More importantly, Michalek was a leader on the penalty kill, averaging 3:46 of PK time each game. I feel this would be an opportune time to mention that the Pens finished the season no. 1 overall in PK with 86.1% success rate of killing penalties. For those playing the home game, that is a staggering statistic. It becomes even more terrifying when you realize the Pens were assessed the most penalties in the NHL with 480. The Pens were assessed 374 minor penalties, 74 major penalties, 13 misconducts, 10 game misconducts, a 1 match penalty. All combined for a total of 1388 penalty minutes. The Pens averaged 16.9 minutes of PK time per game.

Let all of those stats sink in for a few minutes. Really. Go get a glass of water, maybe tend to your garden or play with your dog or cat. Think about all the penalties and the fact that the Pens lead the NHL in PK percentage. Even my mind is blown, and I saw every single game.

Allow me to say that I don’t want to discount the efforts of other penalty killers. Craig Adams, Max Talbot, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, and any others I’ve forgotten and/or helped pitch in all worked to create such an absolutely insane penalty kill unit. Of course, it could all be for naught, too, had Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson not been completely insane between the pipes for the majority of the year, either.

I could go into each category, but you will likely tune out, if you have not done so already, by discussing the point production and ratings against each team. Much like Cooke, there is no one team that Michalek excelled against. He played well against just about everyone. Shockingly, his worst numbers came against Montreal and Carolina. Not exactly two juggernauts of offense or skill. Sometimes there are just teams that have your number. Hopefully those things get fixed next year.

I think it is clear just how important Michalek has become to the success of the team. He may not light the lamp too often or lay out too many hits (both of which I expect to see an uptick in next year), but he is a calm, stable presence on the blueline that is sadly undervalued. There is also a clear correlation between his play and +/- rating and the success of the team. He isn’t allowing much to get behind him or his goaltender and he’s allowing the forwards to do their work. In the entire season there was only one game in which Michalek was a plus player (+1) and the team lost – 2/23 vs San Jose Sharks, and even in defeat they managed to salvage a loser point by going to OT.

What to expect out of Zbynek next year? Well, it’s hard to say. Offensively, I do think he will become more involved, both getting a little time on the PP as well as being more certain of his shot and having guys like Malkin and Crosby around regularly to take some unreal first passes out of the zone. Defensively? I really do not know what more you can ask from him that he did not show us this season.

Projected stats (and like Cooke, these are completely a gut feeling, not basing this off any scientific model):

77GP, 8G, 21A, 29P, 36PIM, +5, 118S, 1PPG, 2PPA, 0SHG, 1SHA, 3GWG, 22:10TOI

I say expect more of the same from Zybnek with hopefully a little more offense, as he does have an amazing bomb from the point, and hopefully a little more using his size. I expect the shot blocking to remain in the ~150 range, but expect to see the hits go north of 60. Likewise, I expect to see the takeaways tick up toward 20. Not huge improvements, but enough that the overall play will improve above and beyond what I already believe to be a grossly underrated defensive playmaker.

Let’s go Pens.

73 thoughts on “Pens Preview: Zbynek Michalek

Add yours

  1. I thought Z would be a solid pickup last summer,but I dont think that many people thought he would turn out as well as he did. His PK numbers are simply staggering. I can’t wait to see how he mentors Despres in the next few seasons.

    1. The next few seasons are going to be interesting outright on the defensive side. You can assume that Michalek, Martin, and Orpik are all going to play their contracts out. Letang is in the category of “if an unbeatable trade comes down the pike…” category, and I think Lovejoy and Niskanen are potential closers on a trade given the defensive depth the Pens currently have. With Despres ready by 2012-2013, and Niskanen likely a goner, you have to wonder what becomes of Letang and Orpik, as they will be at the end of their contracts and I doubt either will be back, good as they both are/can be.

      Everyone thought Alex Goligoski was the future and he’s playing in Dallas.

  2. Well done Walt – you do your homework and come off objective, even on the subject of your favorite player.I look forward to the days ahead.

    It’s nice to see other friends here too – you have a lot of support, keep it up.

    BTW – stupid is beginning to eat itself. I hope you know what this means so I don’t sound insane.

    1. Thank you. As terrible as I am at abstract math, I did fantastically well with things like statistics and probability. I like to think I do a decent job of weeding out the noise and getting the correct numbers out there. It’s difficult to show stats on a defensive defensman without leaning too heavily on +/-. That was the only part that bugged me about writing this. I did focus on it because it’s a valuable stat for a guy like Michalek (and also applied to him playing with the competent version of Fleury, as he missed the “God, Fleury sucks” part with his injury). +/- is such a misleading stat, but hard to use otherwise with a guy like this. It’s like trying to explain why Orpik is great by saying “he just is and makes good plays.” When talking about defense, you have to at least have some understanding (and I know you are very well versed in hockey) that not all guys are like Mike Green or Sergei Gonchar.

  3. “many Pens fans had no idea who or what a “Zbynek Michalek” was.”
    i know what he is, a mother fucking brick wall.

    well done. loved it, and you didn’t let your fanboy side show too much. if i were to write this every other sentence would be, “MICHALEK IS FRIGGIN HOT!” and “ONE OF THESE DAYS IMMA WRECK HIS HOME!”
    uhm, yeah…. with that i leave you this:
    and yes, it’s a safe picture.

    1. I’m disappointed it wasn’t Michalek with the little baby. That photo manages to turn my cold heart warm and fuzzy.

      I know how difficult it can be to keep one’s personal opinions in check when writing. See the comment I made above to Adam12 – it’s really hard to show and explain the importance of what Michalek brings without assuming the reader has at least some understanding of hockey.

      Michalek and Martin – I would trust those two in a clutch situation more than any defensive pair in the NHL right now.

      1. i was a little iffy on Martin at the beginning of the season, but after he got comfortable playing the pens system, i knew he and Michalek would be great. i trust those two more than Orpik and Letang when it comes to big games. and i’d much rather see Michalek on the power play than Letang.

        1. God. That picture. That just isn’t even fair.

          The only concern I had about Martin going into the season was injury history (remember, Billy G did destroy Martin’s forearm with a shot…and then Martin came back near the end of the season and scored unlimited unreal goals against us because we forgot how to change lines and Fleury was at the height of suckitude then). Ugh. It was the Green and Red Devils unis, too. Vomit.

          Letang’s preview is not going to be very kind.

  4. I think profiling Martin will be even more difficult than Z because his game is so much more subtle. I expect his offensive numbers will increase next year (this year he was probably a little confused why his coach let him out of his own dzone), but I love his stick play defensively. He’s not noticeably physically, but he’s always in the right spot and makes the right play under pressure.

    also, anyone remember that time in november when we lost in OT because Z fell down and everyone was bridgejumping? good times

    1. remember that time in october and november when Fleury sucked and everyone was bridgejumping? then remember when Fleury came out of his funk and people were still bridgejumping because no matter what, Fleury sucks.

      1. Look, Fleury was garbage all 2010, less the first 2-3 weeks when Olympic rosters were being decided. He was even worse to start 2011. He got benched, took it like a man, got his self straightened out and played balls out for the rest of the season. We need to see the 2nd half of the year Fleury from here on out. No more Mr. Up-and-Down.

  5. Another great post, sir.

    Michalek is a personal favorite of mine, and you can tell that because I bought his shersey by November. I agree that it’s nigh impossible to accurately get his talents across using simple statistics. However, you did the best you could with the stats available, while also using non-statistical evidence to give him his proper due. Not an easy task, so kudos to you.

    As for next season, Coach Disco will feel more comfortable getting him involved offensively, I suspect, while not lessening his defensive responsibilities. It means he’ll have more on his plate, and great expectations. I don’t see him wilting, though. Z will make a big splash next season, that’s for sure…

    1. I sure hope so, but I have my doubts about Bylsma wanting to get him involved offensively other than possibly dropping bombs from the right point. I love Bylsma, but he’s very much a 1-stay-at-home-D-with-1-offensive-D type of guy. Putting two offense D gives me fits (see: Letang and Martin playing together on the PP) but putting two stay-at-home-D together would make me think I’m watching the Devils (imagine Z with Orpik).

      I hopehopehope he gets involved in the offense more.

    1. Thank you, sir. The feedback is greatly appreciated. Geno, Letang, and Fleury are coming up on the docket. All three of those are potentially going to be painful to write for a variety of reasons.

      1. I for one cannot wait for your Letang preview. We don’t see eye to eye on MAF.
        And I am calling a Geno Beast Mode season. Write it down. In blood. Blood mixed with red cabbage juice. Boom.

        1. I already declared open season on Letang last year and have declared he and Tangradi are my “nut up or shut up” guys.

          Fleury did exactly what I had hoped he would do – he played consistent (from mid-November on). His 2010 season was laughable, and the start of the 2011 season was even worse. Bylsma handled the whole thing perfectly – benched him, made Johnny the starter for a while, let 29 get his things straightened out, took it like a man, and came back with something to prove.

          I’m not willing to say this is a make-or-break year for him, but I think it’s a quiet-the-haters type year. If he can keep up the same level of work and effort he did down the stretch in 2011, he’ll have a solid year and not cost the team any games. That’s my bugaboo. When his sloppy play, and 2010 and start of 2011 were prime examples, cost the team points.

  6. Nice work again Walt. You know your hockey that’s for sure. You mentioned Z on the PP a little there at the end. I’d like to see that, we’ve missed that guy at the point since Gonch left, love Tanger but looking at our PP numbers something wasn’t working. Maybe Z at the point is the answer, along with Sid and Geno being healthy obviously.

    1. ‘preciated. I like to think I know something about hockey. I, unlike Andy Sutton, am not an expert. There’s still plenty I could learn and understand better. Always learning, though.

      Z on the PP has been basically my ongoing hope. I have no confidence in Letang or Martin at the point on the PP. I trust Letang to shoot, but his accuracy is so bad it kills the offense. I trust Martin to make smart decisions, but never shoot or take any risks whatsoever.

      The problem as I see it, and why the PP was so ineffective, was because you knew where the shots were coming from (or not coming from) as well as horrible and predictable entry. I was at game 2 vs Tampa. I pointed out to my brother how every entrance into Tampa’s zone went thusly:

      Letang carries the mail up the middle, dishes ahead on RW to the leading forward, struggle at the blue line, lose puck battle, go back and chase. Truly maddening.

      If I were a coach, I would give some legitimate looks at Michalek and Lovejoy on the points on the PP with Sid, Neal, and TK in the diamond around the net.

      1. Hey mate, Mils is doing well. It’s gonna be an ongoing thing but as I posted maybe last week on tPB, her white blood count is back down to normal levels, so we’re off to a good start. Thanks for the thoughts, really appreciate it.

  7. good god, walter, how long did it take you to write this? i’ll come back and read it later. It’s nice to see some of the fam in here. (Hi Yinz guys!)
    Thanks a bunch for talking actual hockey in the offseason.

    1. Honestly? About 2-3 hours.

      Hockey? In the off-season? I thought the only type of blogging that existed was about Jonathan Brandis and how much Bylsma sucks and how certain people would become fans of whatever team Jagr signed with…and have since turned about face.

    1. Thank you, thank you. I can only imagine how nuts it was. I made it to 3 games all year – the 4-1 win vs DET, the 4-0 loss to the Wild, and the 4875784-1 loss in game 2 vs TBL. Bleh.

      I did get to see the Chris Conner penalty shot goal. That was pretty wild. I also got to sit next to Orpik’s dad. That stare runs in the family.

  8. tl:dr…

    just kidding, i’m halfway through and how did you know I tend a garden? i will report back after it sinks in and i read the rest. you really blew my mind with the number of penalty minutes the pens served.

    wtf the league is making it hard for us so we look even more awesome when we win!

    1. let’s start the hugging now.

      Z is the shit, i’ve liked him for a few years now. he does alot for this team and it looks like he will in the future. you only sounded slightly fanboyish.

      hope you continue with the goodness, i’m enjoying it and glad that you’re back to blogging. from seeing you in other “places” it was obvious you’d be an interesting read. i think it’s cool what’s going on here, and the writing is definitely appreciated.

      next preview will be macintyre right?

      1. The next preview will likely not be until next week. Enjoyable as these are to work on, I need to put a little time between them. They require a lot of reading numbers and charts.

        Expect some new/other things this week. Hopefully will be a good week. I’ve got my first guest post coming up tomorrow. I am very excited for this.

        And here’s you MacIntyre preview:

        He’ll thump your skull.

        End of preview.

        1. Also Mr. MacIntrye and I share the birthday 8/8/80 FTW. Dude looks crazy which is all we need him to be. Two-way contract is also Shero acting all “What’cha Gonna Do Beeotches?”

  9. Have we seriously gone 28ish comments about Z without a link to that god damn picture of him holding a baby?!?! Preposterous!

    Thumbs all around Mr. Flanagan Salmonthumper. I tried telling friends last September that Z was the better signing over Martin and it took until maybe March for them to concede. I need to find better friends.

    Good work as always.

    Fuck-all-yinz-guys from tPb. Love/hate seeing you over here in Awesometown.

        1. I did frequent that place during the season, took a hiatus, came back to a bunch of kids and mouth breathers clogging up my screen, so threw a temper tantrum and quit. Walt is the new shiny thing that just so happens to be a wordsmith. Go Walt. Go people in here! WOOOOOOOOOO!

              1. “Oh man Homestar Runner. Wincity. TROGDOR!!!!!”
                +1 to you, sir. Every time I see my brother, he’s always calling me “li’l brudder.”

                I don’t kill him, because I would like to remain a part of his will.

    1. No, Rex posted the photo of Z with the baby. Sorry, dude, I’ll allow it. My mancrush is made only that much worse because of my horrible desire for children.

      Z is different from Martin and both are valuable for what the do. I think Martin would get less crap if he and Z were paid the same. Sometimes you have to overpay to fix your problems. In our case, the problems going from the previous season into the next was the atrocious defense. Gotta spend that money to fix the problem.

    2. Dapper, you reading the new book? I’m only 100 pages in, so awesome. Only 900 pages to go!

      The fun seems to have evaporated over at tPB, it feels really different there now, I know I’m relatively new still but it’s kinda sad.

      1. Haha, good, that’s what they get. I will still go in and read Stoosh’s write-ups, but that teeny bopper haven is dead to me.

        Yeah man I got it on my Kindle yesterday, about 8% in right now, so whatever that is page wise.

  10. As I said last night, those stats are mind blowing. This post was just as in depth as the Matt Cooke article and I enjoyed it immensely. I have a soft spot for D-men and looking in depth at Z just makes me like him even more. Keep up the fantastic work Walt. Looking forward to the next post.

    1. Thank you! Like I said above, the next Pens Preview likely won’t be until next week. I’m still deciding between Geno, Fleury, and Letang. Dupuis and Kennedy are in the mix, too.

      1. All great choices and worth the wait haha. Oh forgot to say this earlier, I really agree with you when you said you thought Z’s hits and takeaways would rise this year. It’s something I will be really surprised to see something else happen.

  11. Hey Walt, good preview on Z. I can’t fathom how you got a game-by-game breakdown on some of the stats. Actually, I CAN fathom how you got them. I just can’t say I or anybody else would put forth that much effort. Well done.
    Also, will there be gamedays here? Might be a nice change of venue.

    1. Believe it or not, digging up the stats are pretty simple, just requires some patience and understanding of how best to express them in words instead of just showing a table.

      Guys like Martin are going to be incredibly difficult to review/preview.

      Malkin had horrible stats last season. That’s going to be an ugly preview.

    1. Oh, thank you. I’m glad to see people are enjoying reading them because I enjoy writing them. The next player profile likely won’t get taken care of until next week.

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