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.

Pens Preview: Matt Cooke

As mentioned before, I am a tremendous fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and of hockey in general. I want to take some time to look at the major players for the Penguins as we get into the thick of the off-season in anticipation of the coming new year. I plan on taking a somewhat in-depth look at the player’s statistics and measure them against various benchmarks. Hopefully I can keep this interesting for everyone.

I wasn’t entirely sure which player to start with when I had originally thought of doing this. I had it narrowed down to a few players, but couldn’t easily decide who should be the first player. I even posed the question to a number of others and there was little agreement there, too. The only player to consistently get “well, that would be a good starting point” type responses is none other than the infamous Matt Cooke. Thus, I give you the Avoid the Clap breakdown and future of Matt Cooke.

Matt Cooke 2010-2011 general stat line:

67 GP, 12G, 18A, 30P, +14, 129PIM, 0PP, 3SH, 2GWG, 95S, 12.6S%

If the above statline looks odd or you have no idea what the numbers and letters me, I’ll break it down for you (and these can be applied to all players from here on out – use this post as a reference if you forget).

GP = games played, G = goals, A = assists, P = points, +/- = rating assigned to a player (+ indicated player was on ice when a goal was scored FOR his team, – indicated he was on ice for a goal against), PIM = penalty minutes (minor penalties assessed 2 minutes, majors, such as fighting, are assessed 5 minute penalties, and game misconducts are assessed 10 minutes), PP = power play goals, SH = Short-Handed goals, S = shots taken, S% = Shooting percentage (success rate of goal scoring vs number of shots taken).

Cooke had an interesting year, to say the least. Cooke effectively put up .45P per game. For a 3rd line player, I’ll take half a point per game production. Hell, guys like Crosby, a rare, generational talent, hover around 1P/per game, which is mind blowing.

Before I fully get into Cooke’s point production and offensive/defensive upside, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: suspensions.

Cooke has a history of playing the game with an edge. I, personally, like what Cooke brings to the rink each night. I like that he’ll knock players on their wallets. I like that he will agitate the oppositions stars and get under the skin of skill guys.  A good, competitive hockey club needs a guy or two like Cooke who can be a complete pest and then crush your soul with a beautiful goal or two. Cooke, however, goes across the line a little too often and puts the team at a gross disadvantage by taking unnecessary penalties and/or being suspended for his play and borderline-to-grossly-illegal hits.

We can think back to his hit on Marc Savard as the beginning of the end for Cooke ever being given the benefit of the doubt.

While the end result is ugly, the hit was legal at the time. I disagree with Cooke for making the hit, as nothing good can come from hitting a guy the way he did, but I also can’t argue or make a case he should have been suspended because he did not break any rules. This hit, however, has given the NHL the carte blanche to allow moral outrage to reign over player’s discipline (more on this later). The outrage over the hit went to plaid and everyone lost their damn minds. Scott Laughlin on the Power Play on NHL Network/XM Home Ice had such a magnificent blood lust over Cooke that even I was amazed, and I’ve often said I wished the world would end. Mike Johnson had to talk him down a few times. Laughlin tried to make the case that Cooke should be suspended even though the hit was within the rules and no penalty could be assessed because Savard was injured on the play. Johnson explained to him that it’s no different than some person being arrested while walking down the street even though the person committed no crime. The bloodlust subsided a little after that, but the undying, raging boner that people had for Cooke never died.

Sadly, this was not the last time Cooke’s name would be in the headlines. Here was Cooke’s final act of the season, as he was levied an incredibly heavy suspension for this hit on New York Ranger Ryan McDonagh:

Clearly, this was an illegal hit to the head. I have no problem with Cooke being disciplined for this hit. Moreover, I have a big problem with Cooke making a hit like that in the first place. There was no need or reason to bring the elbow up and deliver such a hit. If he keeps the elbow down and makes a clean hit it’s a great play by a two-way forward. Instead he picks the elbow up and puts his team at a disadvantage for 5 minutes, gets ejected from the game, and then is punished severely. When the game is tied 1-1 in the 3rd period, you DO NOT make a play like this, especially against a division opponent, even more so when the team has been depleted by injuries the way the Pens had been at this point in the season. This was a selfish and truly idiotic play on Cooke’s behalf.

All of that being said, I still believe, as the rest of the season proved, that Cooke’s subsequent suspension was a gross abuse of “making up for the Savard hit” and getting some revenge on Cooke. Cooke was suspended for the remainder of the regular season AND the first round of playoffs, which happened to go seven games. Going by the metric the NHL uses, 1 playoff game = 2 regular season games, so that was a 14 game suspension, plus the ten regular season games, giving a total of a 24-game suspension. For the sake of comparison, Matt Martin of the New York Islanders was only assessed a 4-game suspension for this attack on the Penguins’ Max Talbot (sucker punch and attack on a defenseless player from behind – the same type of play that had nearly killed Steve Moore when Todd Bertuzzi leveled a similar hit)

Likewise, Trevor Gillies, in the same game, was assessed a 9-game suspension for a hit as bad as Cooke’s on McDonagh. Gillies charged Eric Tangradi, leveled him in the head with an elbow, and then proceeded to punch him while he was clearly injured and doubled over. Gillies took him to the ice and then mocked him as he lay on the ice recovering from what ended up being a major concussion. Gillies is a professional goon with no redeeming qualities. Martin had been assessed a suspension for a hit on Phoenix’s Vernon Fiddler earlier in the season.  The repeat offender rule comes into play and both were slapped on the wrist for actions that would be considered felonious assault outside of the hockey rink. Matt Cooke was suspended for the equivalent of 24 games because of being a “repeat offender” (and there’s no denying he is a repeat offender, though the legitimacy of some of the suspensions is debatable), but guys like Martin and Gillies, in premeditated intent to injure, were slapped on the wrist.

Ugh.  Just ugh all around.

The bullseye is on Cooke’s back, deserved or not. There is no benefit of the doubt for a guy like him. He has pledged, at the strong urging of Penguins’ General Manager Ray Shero, to change the way he plays. Cooke has pledged to play smarter and not cross that line. I hope he is being truthful. When he plays with an edge, but within the rules, he is an excellent player and his stats bear that out.

In 67 games this season, Cooke was able to net 12 goals and assist on 18 others, giving 30 points on the year. When one looks deeper into the stats, it is even more impressive. He doesn’t have one or two games that skew those numbers. He was a consistent and constant presence on the ice, both offensively and defensively.

In the 67 games played, Cooke had ZERO multi-goal games, which means he scored in 12 separate games, and only had 5 multi-point games (only 2 games were a goal and assist, all other multi-point games were 2 assists), with none being greater than 2 points. In 67 games, Cooke appeared on the score sheet in 27 of them. Fantastic presence and production from a 3rd line player. Also within the stats, of his 12 goals, 3 of them came short-handed (or when the team was killing a penalty and playing with 1 fewer players). 1/4 of his goal output came on the PK. 3 of his assists also came on the PK, indicating that he helped set up 3 other goals by players while a man short. 6 of his total 30 points came while being a man down. Truly an astounding statline.

Cooke’s goals came against the following opponents (team abbreviations used for sake of my sanity; categorized by month):

October: PHI, TBL

November: DAL, NYR

December: BUF, PHX, FLA, ATL (now WPG)

January: DET

February: BUF, CHI

March: OTT.

Using the same system, his offensive output came against the following:

October: MTL, TOR, PHI, TBL

November: DAL, BOS, ATL (WPG), NYR, VAN

December: TOR, BUF, PHX, FLA, OTT, ATL (WPG)

January: TBL, BOS, DET

February: BUF, CHI, SJS, CHI

March: BOS, EDM, OTT

When he plays smart, Cooke has a lot more skill than people give him credit.

Other than Buffalo, there doesn’t appear to be a team that Cooke clearly played well against. He matched up well against a variety of teams and chipped in with timely offense. Likewise, games in which he appeared on the score sheet, the Pens record was 16-9. Timely scoring is a key to victory, and that is something that Cooke clearly provides the team.

Defensively, too, Cooke has been a stalwart. A prime example of what it means to be a two-way player, Cooke once again finished his season with a net positive +/- rating. He finished with a +14 rating, indicating that he was on the ice for 14 more goals for the Pens than against. I will admit, sometimes +/- can be a misleading stat, but it’s hard to deny that a +14 is impressive as a third line player whose responsibility is to give the main offense a rest, bang bodies, and score a timely goal or two to break the opponent’s will.

What will next season have in store for Matt Cooke? Well, it’s hard to say. He is a fantastically consistent player. The majority of his professional years have hovered around 30-35 points, which a few aberrations here and there. Had he stayed out of trouble he was potentially headed for a career year in production. He has also typically been in the 10-15% range on shot percentage, indicating he is not wasting his opportunities to score goals. He has 301 career points, but also 988 career penalty minutes. I can promise you he will eclipse the 1000 mark on penalty minutes, but I would say it is near impossible for him to eclipse the 350 point mark.

Based on previous seasons and what I can expect the Pens’ line-up to look like heading into next year, my projection (and this is based on trends and speculation, nothing scientific) for Cooke:

73 games played, 18 goals, 23 assists, 41P, 88 penalty minutes, 1 SHG, 0PPG, 2 GWG, 108S, 16.7%

If Cooke truly is a reformed man, and I hope he is, I think you will see a big upswing in offensive output. If Cooke goes back to playing the way he did this past year, you can expect him to be suspended a lot and/or scratched nightly. This year has the potential to be huge for Cooke. He can either right the ship and play with the skill we know he has, or he can continue down the road of making stupid plays and put the team in danger. It will be interesting to see which path he chooses. I, personally, think he will play with skill and curb his over-the-line play substantially.

Let’s go Pens.

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