The Deep End of the Fan Pool

I am, by and large, a big personality. Those who know me in real life know that I can be…a little much to take. Those who only know me from online are fairly certain that I am mentally unstable and in desperate need of various medications.

They very well may all be right, but that doesn’t make what I say wrong.

Look, I am by no means an expert when it comes to development of junior hockey players. I know that most who are drafted do not go on to long, successful careers in the NHL. It’s a crapshoot. I get that. I never claimed it otherwise. I am not a professional scout. And in a mildly passive-aggressive retort: Neither are you.

I got a LOT of shit from a LOT of people who like to remind me that I’m not a professional scout. I would like to point out that neither are they. I have my opinions and, generally speaking, they aren’t particularly popular. I have not been shy for the last year-or-so in criticizing general manager Ray Shero’s draft strategy. The defense I hear regularly is “yeah, and look at all the stud defensemen and success they’re having in Nashville.” My response? “Yeah, they’re developing really great talent…which they can’t afford to cheap and continue to flameout in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the playoffs.” I know winning the Cup and making a deep run each year is unreasonable, but the laughable effort the last 3 years from Pittsburgh in the playoffs has been a massive, systematic failure from the very top all the way down.

Routinely I would hear people say “Shero is a ‘best player available’ type drafter.” Bullshit. The 2012 1st round (as well as 2011’s 1st and 2nd round) proved that Shero does not draft the best played available. When the Staal trade came down, I was over the moon. I like Sutter in exchange for Staal. I wasn’t familiar with Dumoulin, but I’ve heard great things. I was even more thrilled with us having a TOP 10 pick with a guy like Filip Forsberg just sitting there…and Ray Shero, almost as though he has an addiction he can’t kick, selects Derrick Pouliot, a guy generally ranked right around where the Pens originally stood at no. 22.

Shero then, again, selected yet another defenseman 14 picks latter with Olli Maatta.

Here’s why I have a problem with this strategy and the borderline ignorance of only using valuable picks on defensemen: The cupboard is completely bare in terms of forward development. Realistically, over the next 5 years, there’s only 2, maybe 3 guys currently in development at forward who could become legitimate NHL talents.

It wouldn’t be a concern if there was ANY depth behind guys like Bennett, Kuhnhackl, and, *gulp* Tangradi. Dominik Uher is about the only depth guy beyond those three who could see NHL action within a few seasons. I know there was a LOT of talk about a guy like Keven Veilleux, but injuries and general lack of spark seems to have tamped that down considerably. I am likely forgetting someone (and, my God, people will only be too happy to tell me about it), but the point still stands that we are choked up with defensemen and continue drafting more and more of them.

If you look at the defense right now, there’s Joe Morrow, Simon Despres, Scott Harrington, Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Strait, Carl Sneep, Philip Samuelsson, Alex Grant, Reid McNeill, and now Maatta, Dumoulin, and Pouliot. Again, I’ve likely missed 2 or 3 guys, but that is immaterial.

So many times I hear people use the argument that “defensemen are the most sought after commodity,” and they are, generally, correct. But for those assets to actually be useful as a commodity Shero needs to pull the trigger and trade them. Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo have shown they are capable of playing in the NHL, but with how things have shaken out, it seems likely they will A: Walk for nothing, B: Get picked off waivers for nothing (assuming they don’t make the team out of camp), or C: will play a regular shift in the NHL night-in-night-out. Why don’t I include option D: Trade them for other assets? Because Shero has shown an unwillingness to trade his precious commodities.

He did pull the trigger on Goligoski, which worked out beautifully, but that still leaves a hilarious logjam both on the Pens and in the development channel. Then he moves Michalek for ANOTHER defensive prospect…after adding a defensive prospect in the Staal trade.

This would really be a truly wonderful thing…if the Pens, from top down, were planning on actually growing and developing the home-grown talent. They aren’t. They sign guys from outside. And they’re making a big push for at least one big time defensive signing while standing in opposition to promotion from within, at least on the foreseeable horizon.

Maybe, one day, far down the line the defensive corps will be guys like Morrow, Pouliot, Maatta, Harrington, Despres…but it doesn’t seem bloody likely, given the history.

It has becomes a relatively well-known fact that I am a “bad fan.” I routinely criticize the team and management. I have high expectations and do not stand for or defend substandard play. When the Pens fall in their well-known pattern of playing lazy defense, or the famous “switch flipping” mentality, I become unbearable. The dealings of Ray Shero have completely sent me over the edge.

I trust Ray Shero implicitly when it comes to getting players signed to cap-friendly, respectable contracts and making trades, but I don’t trust him when it comes to his drafting or moving the defensemen he’s accumulated.

So, of course, I took up the charge of saying the things nobody else is willing to say and thinking the things nobody else is willing to think. I just happen to take to the internet and actually say them for all the world to criticize me. I’m a bad fan because I don’t think everything the team does is wonderful. I’m a bad fan because I don’t like a lot of what the team does. I’m a bad fan because of being critical and having the wherewithal to actually state an opinion that goes against the grain.

I’m a bad fan not out of malice, but out of painful, deep love. I want this team to be successful in every aspect and continually be successful. The current model is NOT one of success. If I wanted a team that played 60 games that were really entertaining, 20 games that were laughably bad, and 2 games that were so-so…I’d watch the Vancouver Canucks.

With the draft said and done, we all turn our eyes toward Free Agency. Next Sunday, July 1, will really be the end result of the last few years under Ray Shero’s guidance. The two names most associated with the Penguins and their collective interests in free agency are F Zach Parise, currently of the New Jersey Devils, and D Ryan Suter, of the Nashville Predators.

A good number of people have already written that Parise is a foregone conclusion to come to Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t be too certain of that. He’s the biggest fish in this free agent class and will have a number of high profile suitors as well as some ludicrous contracts thrown his way. The Penguins, at present, have about $15M in cap space, which is impressive, but about half of that will go to Parise if they wish to sign him. I cannot even fathom what it will take to land Ryan Suter, but signing both is…possible. If the Pens are able to open up a little more cap space, I think both players will be signing here. If additional cap space is not an option, Shero will be forced to pick between the two.

Failure to land either player will be a complete and catastrophic failure on Ray Shero’s part. With trading Staal and Michalek as well as continuing to draft more defensemen, Shero has found himself in the position of having cap space, but also needs to be a big time player on July 1. Failure to land either leaves the Pens down an all-star caliber forward (though I am a big fan of getting Sutter from Carolina) as well as one of the better defensemen on the Pens’ squad from the last two years and 15 million in cap space effectively “unused.” Yes, there are other options, but then Shero may be forced to spend big on secondary or tertiary targets as well as give up some of those coveted defensive assets in WBS.

And so I find myself, again, in the deep end of the fan pool. I’m out in no-man’s land and I’m willing to tread water as long as need be, but I’m fully embracing my inner Randy Quaid from “Major League II.” I’ve fully embraced the snark and criticism…but it takes just one thing – one, small thing – to get me back to being the world’s biggest fanboy. I want this team to succeed. I want them to win every game and every championship for the next forever, but I know that isn’t possible.

The next ten days might truly define the Shero legacy. He’s a brilliant GM when it comes to contracts and trades. I’ve been told for years to trust in Shero and that Shero has a grand plan for all of this. Well, this is when we see what his plan is.

Pens Preview: Kris Letang

Kris Letang. Wow. Just…wow. I remember watching him over the course of the season and now looking over his stat lines I am purely mystified by Letang’s season. I am going to do my best to write objectively, but I want to outline some of my biases regarding Kris Letang. I was disappointed in his play down the stretch. I know I am not alone in being a little disappointed with his play, both offensively and defensively, as the year went on. I was also grossly offended by Letang’s play on PP for the 2nd half of the season. Those were my major bugaboos. That said, I liked a LOT of what I saw out of Letang  and hope to see him continue to develop (remember, this will only be Letang’s 5th full-season with the club) and do things the right way.

With that all said and out-of-the-way, I give you Kris Letang’s 2010-2011 season:

Wait, whoops. Wrong film.

Using the Youtube test, you wouldn’t know that Kris Letang actually plays hockey, least of all defense. The first 8 or so videos are all of him giving interviews and funny features because he’s so dreamy. I get it. He’s a handsome fella. I’m confident enough in myself to admit when another man is handsome. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but different strokes for different folks. Really, though, for looking for hockey plays, Youtube isn’t all that kind to him. One of the featured videos is his “fight” with Travis Zajac. I’ve got a few videos, though. We’ll have a good time. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

82 GP, 8 G, 42A, 50 P, +15, 101 PIM, 236 S, 3.4% S%, 4PPG, 20PPA, 0SHG, 1 SHA, 2GWG, 24:02 TOI

The positive side of the stats – Letang played all 82 games this season, ranking 3rd in the NHL. He also played all 7 games in the playoffs. Well, “played” and “being a warm body wearing a skating penguin” are different terms. For right now, we’ll just say he played every game all season. A huge feat and good on him for doing so. Playing the Pens style of play and being a top-pairing defender is hard work and to do so for every game this season, I must tip my hat to Mr. Letang. A job well done.

Equally positive, he finished the season a plus player for the second time. He finished 2009-2010 with a +1 rating. That greatly improved to a +15 this year. 25 of Letang’s 50 points came even strength, helping showcase the + rating as even more impressive. For the sake of comparison (mentioned in Michalek’s write-up), James Wisniewski finished the season with 51 points but a laughably bad -14 rating. While there are obvious differences between the team and talent that both Letang and Wis have to play with, the concept of them being almost mirrored in opposite directions is stunning. It becomes even more stunning when you realize that Wisniewski was just signed to a contract of $5.5M and Letang is on the second year of a four-year contract at $3.5M. For two million dollars less, Letang put up the same point total and was a net +29 compared to Wisniewski. Advantage Shero.

Letang did take a large number of penalties this past year. With 101 PIM, he nearly doubled his previous season’s record of 51, which doubled that previous season’s record of 24. Deserved or otherwise, Letang needs to take better penalties. Sometimes taking the penalty when you are the only man back and have to take a tripping or interference call to prevent a scoring chance is a good penalty. He did take more of the”good” penalties, but he took a ton of bad penalties to. He also was victimized by incredibly poor officiating and not having any benefit of the doubt because of playing on the same team as Matt Cooke, as we all remember how ludicrous this penalty call was:

No rest for the team which employs a villain such as Cooke. Steigerwald says about “giving the benefit of the doubt” to the officials, and I would agree IF the officials consistently and league-wide called for a zero-tolerance (even though this was a magnificent play and I like seeing these types of plays) on hits to the head (this wasn’t and it was obvious). Instead, Letang was ejected from the game and assessed penalties for playing hockey. Herein lies the debate about banning all contact to the head and how it will soften the game. I, personally, am supportive of an OHL style banning of all hits to the head, intentional, blind side, and otherwise. I like the idea of leaving a little wiggle room in the discipline, but ALL hits are penalized in some manner. Mandatory 2-minute minor with some discrepancy by the officials for majors, misconducts, and match penalties. In a case such as this, Letang would be given a minor (based on what the ref saw) and Josh Bailey would also be serving the minor for roughing. Upon discussion with other officials and/or seeing a replay, the official would have no cause to assess anything more than a two-minute minor. Instead, we are left with a broken system that allows (and encourages) hitting players in the head if they can be expected to see you and if you are in a “hitting zone.” The NHL and NHLPA need to get serious about this and they have done precisely the opposite.

The other important fact that we are overlooking in that video is that Blake Comeau sucks.

As far as point production went, well, there’s where Letang’s season became interesting. Putting 8 goals on the board over the season is admirable for any defenseman. Doing so when so much offense is generated by the D is a little less impressive. Putting up 8 goals when you are the primary quarterback of the power play is abysmal. Just looking at “8 goals and 41A” is misleading, though. The assist stat is HUGE. Putting up 41A, 20 of which came on the PP, is a great number and should be celebrated. Well, it should be considering that 18 of those 20 PPAs came with Sid, Geno, or both in the line-up. That still means he was able to put…2 PPAs on the board without…Sid or Geno.

Wait, what? You mean Crosby and Malkin are important to the PP and the general offensive output? Why I never!

Obviously the PP was a sore spot for Pens fans this season. Is Letang the answer? Honestly, I don’t know. Trying to live up to Gonchar’s legend on the PP is difficult for anyone. There will be a discussion on the PP and what can and cannot be done another time, but for now we’ll roll with what we have on the roster, and Letang is our top PP guy. When looking at the point production on the PP, it becomes clear just how important Sid and Geno are to the success of the PP and how integral it is to have a guy like Letang on top of his game manning the point. Beginning on 1/6 (the first game in the no-Crosby era) and ending in Atlanta, when Mike Comrie scored his only goal of the year, Letang’s PP numbers went as follows: 2G, 9A. He put up 11 points without Sid (and eventually without Geno). Obviously the production dropped off, but not as much as one might think. I believe it was largely due to no 87 or 71 on the ice to finish off the scoring chances AND because of Letang’s terri-bad shooting. We all laugh and joke about Letang’s shooting accuracy, but I lost the ability to laugh as the season went on. It’s one thing if you can’t shoot straight (in my playing days I had a terrible shot) but it doesn’t matter because you aren’t expected to. It’s a whole different beast if you are expected to get pucks on net or at least in the general vicinity. Taking wild shots that swing around the glass and end boards only to be cleared easily is not a means of success.

We all have to dig deep into our memory banks, but try to think back to when Letang was awesome on the PP and we had Sid and Geno just doing their thing. Did you find it? No, well, let’s jog your memory:

My God. I remember. Look at the play by Letang – making a risky, but incredibly skilled play to keep the puck in the zone, didn’t take a wild shot, cut through the middle and dished it off to Sid. Pavelec just couldn’t do anything. He gambled on challenging Letang but left the next open to a bearing down tandem of Sid and Geno. Letang doesn’t make the pass and we all forget about this play. He made the smart play, using his skill to help the team, and he was a beast. Having Sid and Geno help, too. 18 of 20 PP points came with Sid or Geno not on IR. Without cross referencing the game-by-game stats (perhaps shortsighted on my behalf), I think we can assume the majority of those points come from Sid and Geno being unreal.

Goal scoring. That’s right, I said it. Goal scoring. Kris put up 8 goals. Not bad, but not great, given the opportunities he had. More importantly, as the PP quarterback and shooter from the point, he only put up 4 PPG. That means his even strength goals and PP goals were equal. He was almost completely equal in PP points and even-strength points. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, again, given his skill set AND being given an average of 4:28 per game of PP time, the numbers should be a little higher. In 08-09, Letang had his best year with 10 goals (but only had 23 assists). This was his best season in points and assists, and his second best in goal scoring. Oddly enough, he wasn’t as weak as we thought, at least statistically.

In February, March, and April combined Letang only had 9 total points. That is inexcusable under any circumstances. It either means he cannot handle the responsibility of contributing offensively as an “offensive defenseman.” I disagree with him being labeled as a purely offensive guy because of the great improvement in his defensive game. Either way, I think he knows he needs to be better, both on the PP and even-strength regarding shooting accuracy and not killing offensive zone time by taking poorly placed shots. When you take 236 shots and only get 8 goals, there’s no longer a discussion or debate.

Defensively, I liked Letang’s game for most of the season. Oh, there were times his defense made me want to rip out my hair and the hair of everyone around me, but he generally was better than the year before, and it’s nice to see that. The +15 rating greatly helps, too. By month, Letang was +8, +4, +7, +3, -9, +0, +2. Outside of February in which he put up a -9 (and we need not remember just how painful February was with no Sid, losing Geno, etc). In Pens victories, Letang was a combined +38 and in combined losses he was a -23. Much like Michalek, there’s something to be said about being involved.In only 4 games all season was Letang a + player and the team lost. The Pens went 32-21 when Letang was neutral in +/-, and were 4-17 when a minus player. Not shockingly, when one of your top-4 defenseman is a plus player the team wins more games than they lose. Who ever would have guessed?

There were times, though, when I wanted to reach through and grab that little stain the hair and smack him around.

What the eff? I don’t even want to think about that play. Moving on.

There were some times, especially down the stretch, when Letang just simply would give up on the play. That doesn’t cut it in juniors. It certainly doesn’t cut it at the NHL. Can’t seem to find any of those on Youtube (go figure), but there were times he would lose his man or just flat quit skating and he’d stand there and watch the opposition score. Perhaps the drag of the season and playing every game had an impact on him. Hell, I can barely dig a hole for a few hours a day without needing rest. He’s out there playing like a maniac and getting punched in the face all the while. Still, if he was feeling tired he should have said he needed a rest. A rested Letang at 80% is much better than a proud Letang at 40%.

Sadly, if you plotted just about all stats of Letang’s on a scatterplot/number line/etc, things would go up through December and then just kinda float back down to disappointment by April.

What can we expect out of the dreamiest player? Well, it’s hard to tell. Assuming Sid and Geno are healthy and Paul Coffey come in to school Danny Bylsma on the PP this Summer, I think we can expect some great things. I also happen to think Letang is potentially the big name possibly -possibly- on the trade block. I don’t expect him to go at the deadline, but if another GM is willing to give up huge assets in exchange, I don’t think Shero will turn down the deal.

Like the others, I expect the following from Kris next season (and this, again, is based on nothing but supposition):

78GP, 12G, 45A, 57P, +13, 88PIM, 201S, 6%, 8PPG, 27PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 3GWG, 25:17TOI

I’m gonna lay it down right now – assuming Letang can stay healthy and do his thing without trailing off once the new year rolls around, he will be a Norris finalist. This year he was an All-Star. Next year he’ll be a Norris Finalist.

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.

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