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The Departed - Zbynek Michalek - 07-24-12

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

The Departed" series on Empty Netters is a set of "eulogies" for former Penguins who have passed away... to other teams. Essentially, we look back on their time as a Penguin, examine their contributions to the franchise and as real eulogies occasionally do, exaggerate a bit. Today's eulogy is dedicated to Zbynek Michalek.


In the summer of 2010, the Penguins had $10 million of salary cap space and one definite need.

Defense.

In the previous offseason, salary cap limitations forced the Penguins to part ways their shut-down third pairing on defense of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi. Over the course of the 2009-10 season, they tried to fill the void with a combination of Alex Goligoski, Jay McKee, Jordan Leopold and Martin Skoula.

The results were less than stellar had a team goals against average of 2.87 in the regular season, 11th-worth in the NHL.

After opting not to re-sign aging veteran Sergei Gonchar and missing out on potential free agent Dan Hamhuis, general manager Ray Shero struck quickly within the first hour of the free agent signing period on July 1.

He signed two of the most highly sought free agent defensemen on the market in Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.

After laboring for several seasons in anonymity with the Coyotes, Michalek arrived as the key to the Penguins' defensive issues. One of the league's top shot blockers, Michalek was expected to help the Penguins limit the shots goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury would face.

As the season started, Michalek was teamed up with Brooks Orpik. The coaching staff envisioned Michalek as a safe stay-at-home presence which would allow Orpik some freedom to land a big hit. Those plans were quickly quashed when Michalek suffered a shoulder injury in New Jersey, Oct. 11 which would sideline him for nine games.

By the time Michalek returned to the lineup, he was temporarily paired with Goligoski on defense before he was teamed with Martin. In a 5-1 home win against the Lightning, a game renown for a rebound performance by a struggling Fleury, Martin and Michalek routinely drew shifts against Lightning stars Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos and helped the Penguins limit Tampa Bay to 15 shots. Michalek himself blocked four shots.

Michalek's coming out party may have came in a 3-2 win against the Panthers, Nov. 22. In addition to three blocked shots, he got involved on offense with an assist and four shots on net. The Penguins' penalty kill turned away all five power-place chances the Panthers had that game. Michalek logged 6:09 of shorthanded ice time that evening, most on the team.

With the team's defense rounding into form, the Penguins won a league-best 12 consecutive games in November and December. By the end of the 2010 calendar year, the Penguins had a league-leading 53 points, thanks in part to their improved defense.

On New Year's Day of 2011, Sidney Crosby was concussed due to a collision with Capitals forward David Steckel on a wet sheet of ice during a rainy game in Heinz Field. Just over a month later on Feb. 4, Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers crashed into the right knee of Evgeni Malkin.

In just over the span of a month, the Penguins had lost two former Art Ross Trophy winners for the season. They had to change their approach. Instead of leaning on their offense, they had to rely on defense. Instead of flying pretty in 4-2 games, they had to grind out ugly 2-1 games.

A big part of that change was Martin and Michalek. They routinely drew top assignments against opponent's top forwards.

In four games against the Penguins in 2010-11, Capitals star Alex Ovechkin was limited to one goal which came on a power play.

In six games against the Penguins, Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk was limited one goal, also on the power play.

In six games against the Penguins, Flyers star Jeff Carter was limited to one goal and one assist, the latter coming on the power play.

Michalek's game was hardly physical. It was similar to one of the men he was asked to replace, Scuderi. Like Scuderi, Michalek relied on positioning to prevent goals. This was never more evident than when he recorded a season-high seven blocked shots and saved two potential scores by the Kings in a hard-fought 2-1 overtime win, Feb. 10:

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Over the course of the season, the Penguins' team goals against average dropped nearly half a goal per game to 2.39, seventh-best in the league.

Michalek was also a major part of the team's penalty kill. Usually one of the first players over the boards to face opponent's power play's Michalek helped the Penguins kill 86.1 percent of the man advantages they faced. For the first time in the franchise's history, it had the NHL's best penalty kill.

While Michalek did what was expected of him on defense, his offense lagged. While he was hardly expected to re-write any of Paul Coffey's franchise records for blue-liners, he failed to score a goal in his first 58 goals of the season. In game 59, a comeback 3-1 win agianst the Sabres on March 8th, Michalek scored the game-winning goal by whacking a point shot through traffic by goaltender Ryan Miller:

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Amazingly, all of Michalek's five goals came in the final month and a half of the season. He finished the season with 19 points (five goals, 14 assists). More importantly, he led the team with 149 blocked shots.

In the postseason, the Penguins faced the talented Lightning in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Michalek would lead the team in ice time averaging 27:20 per game in the seven-game series. But the team's vaunted penalty kill - minus the suspended Matt Cooke - became unraveled while facing the Lightning's high-end power play. Allowing eight goals on 27 man-advantage chances, the Penguins were edged by the Lightning in seven games.

After an offseason in which the team courted Michalek's idol, Jaromir Jagr, the Penguins entered the 2011-12 campaign with some issues, but on paper, defense wasn't one of them. Its top seven defenders were seemingly set. But from the get-go there were issues.

An injury to Orpik forced him out of the lineup for the first eight games of the season. That put a little bit more pressure on Michalek and Martin to lead the team's blue line. Things got off to a bad start the first game of the season when Martin and Michalek were on the ice for all three of the Canucks' goals in a 4-3 shootout win by the Penguins, Oct. 6.

If there was a play which encapsulated the early-season struggles of Martin and Michalek, it came on the opening faceoff of a 2-1 road loss to the new Jets, Oct. 17. Michalek fell to the ice and turned the puck over. That left Martin out of position for a tic-tac-toe goal by forward Kyle Wellwood:

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Michalek seemed to turn things around a bit by the end of the opening month, but injuries derailed that. In a 4-1 home win against the Devils, Michalek blocked an impressive six blocked shots. The only problem was that the six blocked shot ended up breaking a finger and sidelined him for nearly month. After missing 10 games he returned in late November, he suffered a concussion in a 4-3 overtime win at Montreal Nov. 26. After missing another 10 games, he re-joined the team two nights before Christmas. By the time he was healthy enough to return to the lineup, a leg injury sidelined his partner, Martin, until early January.

By the time they got back together, Martin and Michalek were still plagued by inconsistencies. By mid-February, the coaches split their high-priced shutdown paring.

As the season wore on, the Penguins found a groove offensively - spurred in part by the return of Crosby - and didn't lean on its defense nearly as much. An 11-game winning streak in February and March made them look like the favorites for the Stanley Cup. But defensive issues began to surface. An 8-4 home rout of the Jets March 20 showed some of those weakness. An 8-4 rout by the Senators, March 24 showed off those weaknesses. Back to back 5-4 losses to the lowly Islanders March 27 and 29 exploited those weaknesses.

The Penguins would face the rival Flyers in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. It was shaped up to be a meeting of two fierce enemies. It ended up being a one-sided display of special teams aptitude. Once again, the Penguins' vaunted penalty kill was obliterated for 12 goals on 23 chances.

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Michalek himself labored throughout the series with was later revealed to be a hip injury. Additionally, a dangerous hit by Flyers forward Zac Rinaldo in Game 4, a 10-3 win by the Penguins, didn't help matters:

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Ultimately, the Penguins would go down in flames in six games. If there was a perfect way to illustrate how things went for the Penguins, it was this goal by Flyers forward Daniel Briere which deflected off Michalek's leg in the Game 6, a 5-1 series-clinching win by the Flyers.

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After the season, Shero acknowledged his defense's downfall and said "it failed us terribly."

With the NHL draft in Pittsburgh, Shero jettisoned one of his biggest free agent signings, Michalek, back to his former team, the Coyotes, in a trade which brought defensive prospect Harrison Roupp, minor league goaltender Marc Cheverie and a third-round draft pick. It was a move seen primarily as a salary dump as it cleared Michalek's $4 million salary off the books.

Appearing in 135 regular season games for the Penguins, Michalek scored 32 points and led the team with 239 blocked shots over that span.

Zbynek Michalek came to Pittsburgh as an expensive option to improve the defense. He did that for the most part as the team saw improved play in its own end for the better part over two seasons. But ultimately, the team's lack of success in the postseason led to his tenure ending after only two seasons.

(Photos: First-Claus Andersen/Getty Images; Second-Harry How/Getty Images; Third-Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Third-Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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