Zbynek Michalek (right) was one of the most coveted free agents available this summer. A blend of athleticism and toughness, Michalek developed into one of the NHL's premier shot blockers while with the Coyotes.
He was a perfect fit for the Penguins who had some issues on their blue line last season and lost some key defensemen through free agency. On the first day of free agency, he agreed to a five-year deal worth a total of $20 million.
Over the past couple of days, Michalek, who keeps alive a streak of 20 consecutive seasons of the Penguins employing Czech players, discussed a myriad of subjects including his defensive prowess, his offensive potential, joining the Penguins' strong history of Czech players and advice he received from a former "favorite" of Penguins fans.
Does he have a preference on what kind of defensive partner he'll play with?
"No, I’m pretty versatile I think. Over the years, I’ve played with different guys. Some offensive guys. Some defensive guys. It’s really up to the coaches. They’re the ones who are going to decide the lineup. Whatever they decide, I can adjust. Last year I was playing with (Ed) Jovanovski mostly and he’s a pretty offensive guy and I think I had a pretty good year."
On playing with Brooks Orpik (right) in the early days of training camp.
"We talked with the coaches and they wanted to see how it worked to put defensive guys together. We’ll go game-by-game and see how it works out. We have so many options here. It’s a good thing we have so much depth on the blue line. For now, it’s me and Brooks. So far it seems to be working pretty well but it’s just scrimmages. Until we actually play a real game, we’re not going to know."How difficult is it adjusting to a new defensive partner?
"For me, I can play with almost anybody. The only hard thing here is the system. It’s a little bit different than the systems I played before, especially in the defensive zone. We’re watching all the video every day. I’m getting more comfortable every day. I think it’s mostly communication and getting used to the system."
Why did he sign with the Penguins?
"I obviously saw a good team. A team which has a chance to battle for the Stanley Cup every single year. That’s something that I was looking for. I’m a competitive guy and I want to win. I saw the best chance of winning here. That’s why I chose this team. I knew it’s a good organization. They take care of players and their families. Everybody is friendly and trying to help me out any way they can. Lots of new faces here so I’m still adjusting, but the first impression is good."
On the Penguins' style of play.
"They want to play an up-tempo style. Spend as less time in our zone as possible. Use the skill we have up front and get to the puck up to our forwards. It’s the way I like to play too. I like to make good pass out of my own zone and get into the attack."What's the biggest difference between the Coyotes' and Penguins' systems?
"They want us to be really involved in the offense (in Pittsburgh). I think the biggest difference is the puck retrieval. They want us to play close together, make those little plays and get the puck to our forwards a little bit faster. It takes a little time to get used to."
Comparing the Coyotes' shaky ownership situation to the Penguins' stability.
"That’s one of the reasons why I decided to come here. I was in a great position in Phoenix. Unfortunately the situation around the team was unstable. I just thought it was better for myself and my family to go somewhere were the organization was stable. Nothing was bad (in Phoenix) but you just don’t know what is going to happen in the future there."
Is offense an underrated part of his game?
"I would like to think so. I like to get involved if I can. I know over the years in Phoenix I became a more defensive defenseman. That’s the role they wanted me to play there. I can always chip in offensively here and there. I know back in juniors and when I was growing up, I was a more offensive guy. I could scores too. I believe I can get more involved too. That’s something we’ve talked with the coaches already. They want me to get involved in the rush, help the forwards out and makes some plays."Does he have a goal in mind in terms of a point total?
"Every season, I’m thinking about hitting at least 20 points. And if I go over 20, I’m happy. Last year, I didn’t hit 20. I missed three games, but that’s how it goes. I’m trying to help out as much offensively as I can. I know that’s not the main reason why I’m on the team, but I’m trying to chip in offensively too."
Could he potentially see some time with the power play?
"I hope so. I’ve played power play before. I can do it. It’s up to me. I need to get better with the puck. Make sure I get the puck on net. I have to work on that. Lots of things I need to improve to get a shot on the power play. When you looked around, there’s a lot of skilled defensemen on the team. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m I’ll do my best. Nothing comes free. You have to earn everything."
How has he avoided significant injury despite being a shot-blocker?
"I think it’s just luck I guess. You have to get hit in a good spot. I broke my foot twice last season so I wasn’t that lucky, but luckily I didn’t miss that many games. No serious injuries yet, but I guess you have to be lucky. Even sometimes, wrist shots can break your foot but if you get a slap shot, nothing happens."
How did he learn the skill of blocking shots?
"I was never known for blocking shots until two or three years ago. I guess I learned it with the role they gave me in Phoenix. They wanted me to play a more shutdown or defensive role. I figured it would help me if I blocked shots. Over the years I got better and better at it and I became really comfortable with it."
On playing junior hockey in North America with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"I think it helped me much. I think if I didn’t make the decision to come over (to North America) and play juniors I would never be here in the NHL. It was a tough decision to make at that time but it worked out really well. I had to give up a lot. I didn’t finish school or anything. It was a risk. But I think it paid off and I’m really happy how it worked out."
Was he a fan of the Penguins and their Czech stars in the 1990s and 2000s?
"Definitely. The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the most popular teams in the Czech Republic. Especially because of (Jaromir) Jagr, (Martin) Straka and those guys. So many good Czech players. I know the history here. I hope I can carry the good name for Czech players here."
Who was his favorite player growing up?
"Jagr (right) was my favorite. Even though he’s a forward and I was a defenseman, he was the hero for every small kid back home. He did so much for hockey in the Czech Repubic and for the team here in Pittsburgh too. I remember watching him as a small kid when they won those two Cups in the early ‘90s and it was amazing."
Did he talk to any former Penguins about coming to Pittsburgh?
"I live in the same city with (former Penguins defenseman) Josef Melichar. So I talked to him a little bit. We skated together in the summer and he told me all the best things about Pittsburgh. He said he enjoyed it here and I’m going to have fun here."The obligatory "Your brother Milan Michalek is a forward for Ottawa. How do you defend him?" question.
"Well it’s not easy. He’s a really big strong guy and for a big guy, he has so much speed so it’s hard to contain him. I played against him a lot (when Zbynek was in Phoenix and Milan was in San Jose). He scored a lot of goals against us. He’s a good player if he’s healthy. It’s tough. Try to keep him to the outside and don’t give him the middle of the ice. He’s really dangerous and strong and he uses his size and speed very well."
(Photos: Michalek first-Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Orpik-Abelimages/Getty Images; Michalek second-Christian Petersen/Getty Images; Michalek third-Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images; Michalek fourth-David David Zalubowski/Associated Press; Michalek fifth-Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press; Jagr-Paul Chiasson/Associated Press; Michalek brothers-Ben Margot/Associated Press)