Nichols: Is now the time to trade Michalek?

At the risk of offending Alan Walsh, I’m going to outline why it is in management’s best interests to entertain the idea of trading Milan Michalek. In light of the Senators unexpected success this season, on the surface, it might seem like an odd time to consider moving the team’s leading goal scorer. Nevertheless, as I will outline, there are some legitimate reasons for looking into what the market might be for the 35 goal scorer.

At the risk of offending Alan Walsh, I’m going to outline why it is in management’s best interests to entertain the idea of trading Milan Michalek.

In light of the Senators unexpected success this season, on the surface, it might seem like an odd time to consider moving the team’s leading goal scorer. Nevertheless, as I will outline, there are some legitimate reasons for looking into what the market might be for the 35 goal scorer.

1) Ottawa Would Be Selling High

With 35 goals and 60 points, statistically Milo had the second most productive season of his career. While he established a new personal record for goals in a season, besting his previous high of 26, he did however ultimately fall short of his career regular season high of 66 points that he set during the 2006/07 campaign.

2) Inflated Numbers?

While Michalek’s totals may look impressive on the surface, the underlying numbers indicate that they’re inflated.

According to Behindthenet.ca, amongst Senators regulars, Michalek’s 61.5% offensive zone start metric was more than any Senator forward. (Note: Offensive Zone Start % = Offensive Zone Starts / (Offensive Zone Starts + Defensive Zone Starts)

Of Michalek’s 5-on-5 ice-time, most of it was spent playing with Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. Of his 1,123 5v5 minutes, Spezza was on the ice for 80.3% of that time and Erik Karlsson was on the ice for 52.7% of that time. In other words, Michalek benefited from spending the bulk of his even strength minutes playing with Ottawa’s two most dynamic offensive talents. To put these percentages into perspective, last season he only played with Spezza 33.6% of the time and Karlsson 38.4% of the time.

He also led the league in empty net goals with five and was finally able to stay relatively healthy. After two consecutive seasons of playing in 66 games with the Senators, Michalek played in 77 games for the Senators. His 16.5 shooting percentage was almost 4.0 percent higher than his career average (12.7 percent) and 3.0 percent higher than his previous career high (13.5 percent).

Even if one were to raise the argument that his five empty net goals were the reason why Michalek’s shooting percentage was significantly higher than his career norm, without them Michalek shot 14.4 percent. Considering that he entered the 2011/12 season with a 11.9 shooting percentage, the likelihood that this season represents some massive change in ability is small.

In an excellent piece of analysis, Arctic Ice Hockey illustrated that shooting percentage is essentially constant in players from age 19 to 26, and then it begins a long, slow decline.

Spct_vs_age2_medium

*Graph courtesy of Arctic Ice Hockey

Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post takes it one step further by stating:

History suggests elite goal scorers are often average goal scorers by the time they turn 27 years old. Most goal-scoring wingers peak between ages 23 and 25, and then the decline begins to accelerate after age 26.

It would be reasonable to expect that next season’s figure will regress to the mean. This year was its own microcosm of what’s to come, Michalek was shooting upwards of 20% in the first few months and predictability cooled off towards game 82. It’s a trend that should carry over into the start of next season.

Assuming that there is a next season, which brings me to…

3) Contract Situation

According to Capgeek.com, Milan has two years left on his six-year contract that carries an annual average value (AAV) of $4.333 million per season. Like it has in each of the past four seasons, Michalek’s real dollar value (what the club actually pays him) has incrementally increased. Next season, he will earn $4.75 million before earning $6.0 million in the last year of his deal.

From a fiscal perspective, without knowing what the constraints of the next CBA will bring, it should be easier to move Michalek this offseason before he enters the last season of a deal that owes him a lot of ‘real dollars.’ Moreover, if there actually is a work stoppage, would the Senators be comfortable retaining Michalek for what could essentially be a season and a half of hockey.

4) Age

Michalek does not turn 28 until December 7th, 2012, but generally speaking, a player’s performance or production usually peaks between 26 to 28 years of age. Since Michalek’s already at the latter portion of that threshold and will be 29 years of age when he hits unrestricted free agency, the organization should question whether it would be prudent to sign Michalek to an extension. Given his age and his susceptibility to injury given his style of play, I believe it would be difficult for the organization to get good contractual value for a player who will likely looking for his last big payday. Should Ottawa re-sign him, the law of diminishing returns will begin to apply.

5) Heir Apparent?

As much as I would like to pencil in Jakob Silfverberg, Mika Zibanejad and Mark Stone as future cornerstones on the team’s first or second line, the David Rundblad trade is a humble reminder to fans of just how quickly things can change. In saying that however, despite this season’s production, Michalek has only averaged 25 goals and 42.3 points per season since joining Ottawa. While the goal totals are nice, those are very replaceable numbers that can hopefully be approached from an internal option who could benefit from spending an entire season flanking Spezza.

6) Bigger Needs

With the uncertainty surrounding Ottawa’s blueline – Kuba (UFA), Gilroy (UFA), Carkner (UFA), Gonchar (one year left on his contract) and Phillips (age) – the Sens only have two significant building blocks on the blueline in Karlsson and Jared Cowen. Sure, there are others like Mark Borowiecki and Patrick Wiercioch within the system, but at this point in time, neither prospect carries a projectable high ceiling.

As Ken Warren already pointed out in a piece last week, with the announcement that the organization had re-signed Peter Regin, Ottawa has a number of forwards that management could build a trade package around.

Michalek could be an enticing trade chip for some desperate GM (and look at how many first round playoff upsets there were, they’re out there) looking to sell tickets or make a short-sighted move.

Closing Thoughts…

Please note that this wasn’t written with the intent to throw Milan Michalek under the bus. I think he’s a very useful and likeable player. In saying that however, there are a number of factors that make him a far more valuable trade chip that can be used to augment the Ottawa Senators’ current young core and give them a bigger window of opportunity. Milan scored the 11th most goals in the NHL this season, his previous best ranking in that category is 66th when he scored 26 in 06-07. In consideration of this summer’s barren free agent wasteland, Michalek is an attractive piece that a team desperate for scoring could overpay for.

With Bryan Murray having expressly said in his end of the season press conference that he’s looking to add a veteran defenseman, a trade might be the best way to get there.

Graeme Nichols is a writer for The 6th Sens blog and will be contributing to SenatorsExtra.com throughout the playoffs.

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