Consider some of the big-name Sharks who have garnered lucrative, long-term contracts – Owen Nolan, Vincent Damphousse, Evgeni Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo and Kyle McLaren – and there’s one name that still tops them all.
Milan Michalek may be benefiting from inflation, but sitting pretty with a six-year, $26-million contract, the Czech Republic-born winger just might be the poster boy for the new National Hockey League.
Michalek is big at 6-feet-2, 225 pounds, fast and strong, has a nose for the net, is responsible at both ends of the ice and is just 23 years old. Flashing those attributes was enough to convince Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson to proactively lock up the young talent.
“My agent told me it’s probably going to be a long-term deal, so I kind of expected it,” Michalek said of the summer-time deal. “I was pretty surprised when he told me and I was excited because I knew I would be here a long time.”
General managers throughout the NHL raised their eyebrows this offseason when Edmonton pursued and signed winger Dustin Penner off the roster of the Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks. However, the message was clear: GMs needed to act accordingly with their young, exposed talent if they might not be in a position to match a rival offer sheet.
“I don’t know too many left wingers who have as many assets as Milan,” teammate Joe Thornton
said. “He has everything. He just loves playing the game and he brings a good attitude every day, too.”
Michalek, selected by the Sharks as the No. 6 pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, may not be a household name around the League. But his talents are hard to miss on the ice. He even catches teammates unaware.
“I had no idea, even playing against him, the power and the skill he possesses,” veteran forward Jeremy Roenick said. “He epitomizes pure, sheer talent with brains. And you don’t find that too often with players.”
Michalek’s greatest asset is his speed. It’s commonplace to see him leading the rush, driving hard down a wing, which often creates a big gap between defenders and opposing forwards. If he’s angled away from the middle, Michalek has fat passing lanes to Thornton or another trailer and scoring chances result at a high rate.
“His speed just creates so much more for me,” Thornton said. “He backs everything off and slows the game down for me.
“He’s just so fast, strong and he has a great shot,” Thornton added. “He sees the ice really, really well. He's just the perfect player for this new-age hockey.”
Michalek and Thornton have developed chemistry since paired on the same top line since midway through last season. Michalek’s speed compliments Thornton’s patience with the puck and Michalek certainly benefits from Thornton’s exquisite passing abilities.
“Joe needs a fast guy to play with,” Sharks Head Coach Ron Wilson said of Michalek. “He plays on one of two lines and that’s usually to get a line going because he brings speed that’s scary to play against.”
Michalek doesn’t mind acting as the catalyst for scoring lines, but he’s pretty content skating alongside Thornton, only the third player along with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in League history to accomplish consecutive 90-plus assist seasons.
“It’s great to play with Joe,” Michalek said. “I just try to create room for him. If the puck is dumped in, I try to be there first, work hard and get the puck to Joe.”
Michalek, who turned 23 in early December, admits to being blessed with natural speed, but also dedicates time in the offseason to strengthen his legs by doing a number of quick burst and weight training exercises. He and his older brother, Phoenix defenseman Zbynak, work out with a small group of NHLers in Montreal.
“I’ve never seen a guy go from zero to full speed in three strides and he has that ability,” Roenick said. “I’d say 98-99 percent of the players need half a zone – five or 10 strides – before they hit their peak. Milan can do it within three. Defensemen have fits with guys like that.”
The Sharks used a first-round pick – the sixth choice overall – to nab Michalek, viewed by many as the most NHL-ready prospect of the 2003 draft class. Like the first four players selected – Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal of Carolina, Florida’s Nathan Horton and Nikolai Zherdev of Columbus – Michalek made sudden impact, too, just months after his selection.
Michalek scored a goal in his first NHL game, but suffered a season-ending knee injury during his second game, touching off a series of frustrating starts and stops due to health.
But rehabilitated, rejuvenated and stronger than before, Michalek returned in 2005-06 with 17 goals and 35 points in 81 games. He took another step last season, gaining almost exclusive first- and second-line duty, and responded with career bests in goals (26), assists (40) and points (66). Michalek was also a factor in the postseason with four goals and six points in 11 contests.
“He’s got all the tools. Being so big and so fast, he’s hard to defend and able to go into the corner with anybody and win the puck,” captain Patrick Marleau
said. “He's so young, too, so he’s figured it out pretty early.”
“He’s one of the best young players in the League,” teammate Mike Grier said. “If he keeps developing and putting up numbers, he's on his way to being an All-Star.”
Consistency is always key with young stars, and that’s what Ron Wilson is looking for this season. Michalek finished strong in that regard last year. After going scoreless during a stretch of four of five games, Michalek never went more than two games without a point in San Jose’s final 20 contests. In that span, Michalek scored 11 goals and 25 points.
“I think he’s getting more confident to be a goal scorer,” Ron Wilson said. “That’s what we want from him without sacrificing anything defensively. Milan has to understand we expect offense from him consistently and I think he's starting to provide that.”
Mild and soft-spoken away from the rink, Michalek enjoys many of the same diversions as his teammates when it’s time to get away from hockey. Tri-lingual in Czech, Slovak and English, Michalek enjoys movies, video games, outdoor restaurants and following soccer, the sport he’d most likely be playing if it wasn’t hockey.
“When I first got here, he was really, really quiet,” Thornton said. “Now he understands the language and feels more comfortable in front of the guys.”
“He’s got a good sense of humor,” Marleau added. “You sit beside him and he’s got little one-liners, stuff like that.”
While his teammates know Michalek well on-and-off the ice, it seems like he’s still a pretty well-kept secret around the rest of the NHL. Proximity is a factor as playing on the West Coast, far from the large NHL media markets in Toronto and in the East, seems to cast a shadow on a lot of players.
But that’s also OK with Michalek.
“I don’t get a lot of attention, but I’m excited about that,” Michalek said. “Guys on the West Coast don’t get recognized as much as guys on the East Coast.”
“For people in Toronto and New York, he’s flying under the radar,” Thornton added. “I don’t think he minds that to be honest. He goes about his business.”