by PuckStopsHere on 08/15/10 at 06:59 PM ET
Every summer the NHL GMs rush to hand out big contracts to a group of free agent players that they hope will be the future of their franchises. Some work out to be good signings, but many do not. When a player signed to a longer-term contract worth a significant amount of money does not work out it can be a problem that handcuffs the franchise into the future. I think that one such situation this year is the Pittsburgh Penguins signing of Zbynek Michalek, formerly of the Phoenix Coyotes, to a five year contract worth $20 million in total.
Michalek has been with Phoenix since the lockout year and played a regular shift on their defence. He frequently plays against relatively tough competition and has far more defensive zone starts than offensive ones. Accordingly, his offensive contribution has never been significant. He scored 17 points last year and has a career best of 28, which he got in 2006/07.
Michalek is a defenceman who provides most of his value from defensive play. Nobody has ever suggested that he is a star player. He usually puts up +/- ratings that after adjustment are in the negative, but this is often explained away because he plays a tougher role on his team.
In his favor as he hit free agency this summer is the fact that he is 27 years old and this makes him a relatively young free agent. It is not unreasonable to expect that his best might be yet to come or at the very least that he is still a few years from decline. Also in his favor is the fact that he played on the Phoenix Coyotes this year and Phoenix had a Cinderella-type year. The team won fourth seed in the West Conference despite the uncertainty of their financial condition, as they came out of bankruptcy. The team’s improvement was largely a defensive one and thus hard to quantify. Anyone who may have been related to it got looked at more positively than they probably should have. Dave Tippett was a runaway coach of the year, Don Maloney was the NHL’s first GM of the year and Ilya Bryzgalov was considered a Hart Trophy candidate. That is too much credit given individually for a team improvement that failed to win their division or a playoff round. In the process, Zbynek Michalek got overvalued. He was one of the better defencemen on a much improved team, but he is no star.
When we look closely at his numbers from last year, we see that Michalek had the 10th worst team and zone adjusted Corsi rating in the NHL last year. This isn’t a one year fluke. Michalek has a history of poor puck possession numbers.
Michalek’s game is not a puck possession one. He plays in defensive situations and often penalty kills. He plays against some of the better players in the league. However, he does not stop them from controlling the puck, taking shots and scoring goals against his team. His reputation has grown largely because it is hard to quantify what he does and he was in the right place at the right time for a significantly improved team last year. That is coupled with his relatively young age to make him look like a top pick from the 2010 free agent crop. Many teams made offers to Michalek and Pittsburgh was the one who made the offer he accepted. The auction for his services drove the price up above the level he is likely to provide the team. I strongly doubt that he will provide Pittsburgh with $20 million in value over the next five years. I think that most likely he will be an extra defenceman who has not played well enough to be on their top pairing and people will wonder why Ray Shero gave him the big contract that he did. Michalek will be a big salary cap hit that limits Pittsburgh’s flexibility and may become a buyout candidate.
I do not think that the Zbynek Michalek signing will work out.
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