They say that defense wins championships, so it should come as no surprise that the Penguins wasted little time filling one of the vacancies along their blue line on Thursday when they inked free agent defenseman Zbynek Michalek
to a five-year contract just one hour into unrestricted free agency.
Michalek, 27, comes to the Penguins after spending the previous five years with the Phoenix Coyotes.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Jindrichuv Hradec, Czech Republic native is eager to join a Penguins defensive core which now features five members (Brooks Orpik
, Kris Letang
, Alex Goligoski, Ben Lovejoy
and today's other signee Paul Martin
) in addition to Michalek who are under the age of 30 and signed for at least the next two seasons.
“I am really excited about the chance I have been given to come to a great team like Pittsburgh which is building a great defense,” Michalek said. “I am looking forward to this new challenge. I am really happy”
This past season Michalek, who served as an alternate captain for the Coyotes, was one of the defensive anchors for a Phoenix squad which finished the regular season ranked third in the National Hockey League with a 2.34 goals-against average.
As a result of Phoenix’s dramatic improvement defensively from the year prior, the Coyotes were able to make the postseason for the first time in seven years. That sniff of playoff experience, the first for Michalek in his six-year career, was one of the deciding factors which drew the blueliner to sign with the Penguins.
“I really enjoyed my time in Phoenix but at the end of the day it didn’t work out and I have a chance to play with Pittsburgh now,” Michalek said. “I am coming to a really great organization with a lot of talent. They compete for the Stanley Cup every season so that is something I was looking for because I am a competitive guy and I want to win. I see a really good chance to do that in Pittsburgh.”
While Michalek won’t replace the offense lost when Sergei Gonchar signed with the Ottawa Senators, he will add other important attributes to the lineup.
First and foremost is a shutdown presence whose forte is taking care of the dirty work in his defensive zone. Michalek, a right-handed shot, led all Coyotes defensemen in 2009-10 in average time on ice (22:38 minutes per contest) and blocked shots (156). Two years ago he led the entire NHL with 271 blocked shots.
|Zbynek Michalek will offer a shutdown, shot-blocking presence to the Penguins lineup. Credit - Getty Images |
“When I talked to (general manager) Ray (Shero) and (head coach) Dan (Bylsma) they said they are looking to improve the defensive play of the team,” Michalek said. “They want me to play the same defensive style that I played in Phoenix.
“I had a defensive role in Phoenix where blocking shots was a big part of my game. I will keep trying to work on that and keep getting better because that is one of my strengths.”
Michalek, who recorded three goals, 17 points and posted a plus-5 rating in 72 games with Phoenix in ’09-10, will also help the Penguins penalty killing unit, which was already plenty impressive after finishing this past season ranked ninth in the league with a 84.1-percent success rate.
The penalty-killing extraordinaire saw a team-high 3:16 shorthanded minutes of ice time per contest with Phoenix last season. With Michalek’s ability to block shots and clear the front of the net with his size, the Coyotes were able to finish the year as one of the few teams to rank ahead of the Penguins on the penalty kill with an 84.5-percent kill rate.
“In Phoenix, special teams literally helped to keep us in contention,” Michalek said. “Our penalty kill was really strong. When you get into the playoffs special teams are a huge difference-maker.
“I am a defensive player and my job is to play on the PK. I take pride in that. I like to play good positionally and make it hard for the other team around our net.”
Finally, Michalek will bring durability to the Penguins’ back end. Over the past five seasons Michalek has missed just 17 games, suiting up for 393-of-410 games during that period – including three seasons where he dressed for all 82 contests.
“I have been a little bit lucky because hockey is a tough sport and you get hurt once in a while,” Michalek said. “Knock on wood but I have been pretty lucky to avoid serious injuries – especially the way I like to play the game. You get hit by the puck so many times you can break some bones but so far nothing has happened to me. I hope it will continue that way so that I can play all 82 games again.”
By joining the Penguins, Michalek will once again have the chance to go head-to-head with younger brother Milan, who plays for the Ottawa Senators, four times a year. The two met six-to-eight times a year from ’05-06 to ’08-09 when they shared a home in the Pacific Division back when Milan skated for the San Jose Sharks.
“I talked to Milan and we discussed that scenario,” Michalek laughed. “I know that Pittsburgh and Ottawa have met a couple of times in the playoffs the past couple of years so that would be pretty exciting if that happened again. Hopefully he can get back healthy (from a torn ACL suffered against the Penguins during the postseason) so that we can have fun playing against each other again like we did when I was in Phoenix and he was with San Jose.”