Last summer, Paul Martin
and Zbynek Michalek
reported to Penguins training camp unsure what to expect.
They had just signed with Pittsburgh on the first day of free agency after long tenures with their previous organizations – Martin had spent the last six seasons with New Jersey, while Michalek had played the last five campaigns with Phoenix.
And reflecting back on their previous experiences, both players are amazed at how much difference a year makes.
“It's like night and day,” Michalek said. “I was thinking about the same thing. The first day coming in here just for the skate we had last week and just coming in knowing where I'm going, what people I'm going to see – it makes it so much easier for myself.
“I'm familiar with everybody and the system too, so it makes it easier for me to get right into things. Hopefully I can pick up where I left off and have a good season for the Penguins.”
Martin agreed, saying “I feel good. I think now being more comfortable with the way things are and the systems and all of that kind of stuff, it’s just that much more easy.”
Adjusting to a new brand-new way of playing defense – especially a system as high tempo and aggressive as Pittsburgh’s – is never easy, no matter how long a player has been in the league.
“They’re two great pros, two guys that have had great careers, but I think for a while they felt uncomfortable,” said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works primarily with the defense.
“That’s not always a bad thing in terms of long-term development. It’s good to challenge yourself and good to open your eyes to a different way of playing. We had to go through growing pains initially, but I certainly think both of them were playing their best hockey at the end of last year.”
The pair started patrolling the blue line together last November and it took some time for them to find their groove as a pairing. But both players hit their stride over the second half of the season and in playoffs and had a strong finish, completing a formidable top four with Brooks Orpik
and Kris Letang
Martin and Michalek have started to rediscover that chemistry at this year’s training camp, as they’ve been paired together for both scrimmages – and they’re glad to have the familiarity of playing alongside each other.
“It felt good to have him there,” Michalek said of Martin. “We played together for the better part of last season, so we’re familiar with each other. It’s nice. Hopefully we can get back into good game shape and get used to each other again and have a good start to the season.”
“I think we know where we’re going to be and we’re used to each other by now,” Martin added. “It’s actually been more comfortable this training camp.”
While Martin and Michalek would like to carry that familiarity into the season, nothing is certain in terms of pairings heading out of training camp.
“It’s something where we can look back on last year and know that they had success,” Reirden said. “They played their best hockey when they played together. It’s something that we feel comfortable with. But it’s also something where we will try different combinations in training camp and we have a couple other ideas that we’re going to let play themselves out.”
And the two players will do whatever they can to contribute no matter who they're skating with.
"There's a lot of guys here in the camp that want to make this team and it's up to the coaches to decide the pairings and who’s going to play and who's not," Michalek said. "If I end up with Paul I'll be happy just to do whatever we did last year and help the team."