“When I see a shot coming, I just try to block it if I can,” Michalek said. “In that moment, there’s no time to think about getting injured. I just do it.”
Michalek, 25, backs up those words with his actions. Over the first two-plus months of the 2008-09 season, Michalek – aka ‘Z’ – consistently led the NHL in blocked shots, and did so without complaint.
“This year, the coaches gave me more of a shutdown defenseman role versus the other teams’ top lines,” Michalek said. “It’s been challenging every single night and it’s a tough job because you have to be mentally ready every day and every game because you are playing against the best players on the planet. Blocking shots is just one part of it, but it can help us win games and I’m trying to help us win games. That’s the way I play. I don’t even think about it. It just comes natural to me.”
There’s more to blocking shots than just throwing your body in front of the puck. Knowing when to try to block a shot and when not to try is critical.
“You have to be careful not to screen your goalie,” Michalek said. “You have to realize that you can’t block every shot and on the ones you can’t block you have to make sure the goalie can see the puck. So you have to pick your spots and make sure the timing is right.”
Coyotes Head Coach Wayne Gretzky appreciates Michalek’s efforts and the quiet way he goes about his doing job.
“Every team needs an unselfish player like Michalek,” Gretzky said. “He is always willing to do whatever it takes to help the team and that’s why I play him as many minutes as I do.”
Michalek has been averaging around 23 minutes of ice time per game in 2008-09. That’s pretty impressive for an undrafted player.
While Michalek is an expert at blocking shots, there is much more to his game. He entered the season with 18 goals and 53 assists in his first three-plus years in the NHL.
Coyotes captain Shane Doan
likens Michalek to another defenseman in the league, one-time Coyotes captain Teppo Numminen.
|Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan Smyth (left) tangles with Zbynek Michalek for control of the puck. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images) |
“Comparing someone to Teppo Numminen is a huge compliment, but ‘Z’ is right up there,” Doan said. “His demeanor reminds me so much of Teppo’s. He’s not too vocal, but he does everything on the ice that you could ever ask of anybody, and he shoots the puck probably twice a shard as Teppo could ever shoot the puck.”
Michalek’s younger brother, Milan, also plays in the NHL. Unlike Zbynek, San Jose Sharks forward Milan Michalek is an offensive-minded player trying to score goals. And although they play on rival teams within the Pacific Division, Zbynek said he and Milan not only are brothers, they are great friends.
“We are really close,” Michalek said. “We always talk on the phone and whenever we play each other we usually go out for dinner the night before the game. We’re always supporting each other. I’m always following his games on TV or on the Internet, and he follows my games.”
All of that brotherly love, of course, goes out the window for a few hours when the Coyotes play the Sharks.
“It’s a fun rivalry, but I have extra motivation when we play against the Sharks,” Michalek said. “Every time we play them I want us to show up and play a good game and prove to him, and all of them, that we are a good team and that we can beat them because they’re a good team and it’s a big challenge. Plus, we have the same friends back home in the Czech Republic and I don’t want him to be all over me that they beat us all the time.”
The Michalek brothers train together in the off-season in their native Czech Republic and in Montreal, too. When Zbynek isn’t training in the off-season, he loves to keep busy.
|Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jordan Staal (left) fights for the puck against Zbynek Michalek at Jobing.com Arena. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images) |
“I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to sit around,” he said. “I always like to be doing something. Even when I go on vacation, I don’t like to just sit on a beach all day. I like to explore stuff. I like traveling a lot and I like to go to new places.”
Michalek lists Croatia as his favorite travel destination.
“It’s a very beautiful place and not too many people know about it,” Michalek said. “It’s nice and quiet there, and the sea is so beautiful and the people are so nice and friendly.”
Cancun, Mexico, comes in a close second on Michalek’s list of favorite vacation places.
Michalek began playing hockey when he was about six years old, and the game came easy to him.
“I learned to skate pretty well on the frozen lake of my village even before I learned how to play hockey, so that helped a lot,” Michalek said.
Asked why he is a defenseman and Milan is a forward, Michalek offered a simple explanation.
“What happened was they put the taller kids on defense and the smaller guys on offense, and I was one of the taller ones so they put me on defense.”
Needless to say, the Coyotes are glad Michalek was tall as a youngster. The 6-foot-1, 211-pound blueliner has been a fixture on the roster since coming to Phoenix in a trade with Minnesota before the 2005-06 season. Of the players on this season’s roster, only Doan has played more games with Phoenix.
It would be hard to change teams now. I’m really happy here and I hope to stay for many more years.” - Zbynek Michalek
Michalek has one year left on his contract after the 2008-09 season, but he said he’s hoping to be with the team beyond his current deal.
“This is my fourth year with this team and my role has changed,” Michalek said. “Every year I get more and more responsibility, and I feel it and I’m fine with it. We have a really talented team and I like the way this team is going. Now, of course, there are going to be some tough times and some tough games, but all and all, I think we are improving and that’s a good sign.”
He added, “I like it here very much. I’m comfortable here in the Phoenix area. I’ve met so many nice people and made so many friends. It would be hard to change teams now. I’m really happy here and I hope to stay for many more years.”