The Arizona Coyotes pride themselves by building their team from the net out with strong goaltending and a solid defensive unit. One man who contributes to the defensive core is a player by the name of Zbynek Michalek. Unlike Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Michalek’s game is strictly defensive. He is not afraid to throw his body into shooting lanes in order to help his goaltender out. In fact, blocking shots is a key element in how Michalek plays his game.
The beginning of Zbynek Michalek’s career was in no way easy. Michalek was passed up by every team in the draft back in 2002 but managed to sign on to play with the AHL’s Houston Aeros. Since his name was not familiar at the time, Michalek had to let his performance on the ice do the talking. Zbynek had a brief stint with the Aeros lasting 117 games before being called up to the Minnesota Wild for his NHL debut. Michalek was able to catch the eye of the Wild with his solid forechecking and constant defensive pressure. His first 22 games with the Wild resulted in only 2 points but the way he played defense was what had coaches all over the league raving.
The way that Michalek executed his checks and cleared the puck out of his zone caught the eye of former Phoenix Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett specifically. Barnett and newly appointed head coach Wayne Gretzky saw Michalek as a guy that could turn this team around and send the Coyotes in the right direction. In 2005, the Coyotes swapped out Erik Westrum and Dustin Wood in order to obtain this defensive presence.
With a stellar performance for the Phoenix Coyotes, Zbynek Michalek’s stock rose tremedously when he became an unrestricted free agent in 2010. All thirty NHL teams wanted a guy like him in front of their goaltender. Pittsburgh ended up winning the Michalek lottery with a 5 year, $20 million bid to send him to the Penguins.
Big Z wouldn’t leave the desert for long. It took only two seasons for the ‘Yotes to realize who they were missing out on. At the 2012 NHL Draft, Michalek was on the move once again. The Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to trade Zbynek to the Coyotes in exchange for Harrison Ruopp, Marc Cheverie, and the 81st overall draft pick. Don Maloney was hoping to have the same Michalek that the Coyotes did two years prior, but ultimately that wasn’t the case.
When Big Z landed in the desert for his second stint with the team, expectations were high. This was going to be the guy to provide core values of defense from a veteran’s perspective. Unfortunately, Zbynek Michalek was not the same man as before. He is still the fearless player that throws his body in front of shots to help the team, but due to repetitive injuries; he sits out a good bit of games.
Last season he was the team leader in blocked shots but managed to lace up the skates for only 59 games. In the 23 games that he missed, goaltenders Mike Smith and Thomas Greiss received an increased number of shots registered on net. Without one of the top shot blockers in the league, those extra shots have a good chance of going in.
As we near the beginning of the season there are a few things to remember about our favorite Czech defenseman. Keep in mind that he is not a scorer. While he doesn’t have the high point totals like OEL or Yandle, he provides puck awareness that sets his teammates up in positions to score. He prefers to play right near the goaltender and is not afraid to take a slapshot to the face. If the puck doesn’t even make it to the net then there is no way it is going in. If Zbynek Michalek can stay healthy this season, expect him to make sure no puck crosses the goal line he’s defending.