Of all the unlikely December hockey scenarios, we confronted this one at Scotiabank Place on Monday: Milan Michalek of the Ottawa Senators dueling with Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the NHL goal-scoring lead.
In fact, the three-way tie among Michalek, Stamkos and Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs, each with 16 goals at the start of Monday’s games, has fantasy pool players wondering what in the name of Alex Ovechkin is going on in the Rocket Richard race.
Stamkos? No surprise there. The 21-year-old super star in the making has already won a Richard trophy (shared with Sidney Crosby) as a 51-goal scorer in 2010.
Kessel has produced a troika of 30-goal seasons in Boston and Toronto, and at age 24 the question has been – how much higher can he raise the bar? We’re about to find out.
But Michalek, who turns 27 on Wednesday, wins the prize in the which-of-these-is-not-like-the-others category.
Who isn’t shocked that the Czech winger has turned the Dany Heatley trade on its head with his goal scoring this season after two modest, injury-wracked seasons in Ottawa? Only two goals away from his entire output of last season, Michalek’s career high is 26 goals, established way back in 2006-07, or three ACL surgeries ago.
Don’t bother trying to get Michalek to talk up his torrid pace or the sudden twist on rating the Heatley deal (Heatley has eight goals and 21 points for the surprising Minnesota Wild).
Michalek might play like Superman but off ice he’s all Clark Kent. Make that a slightly more reticent Clark Kent.
Let others project Michalek’s scoring totals to 40 or better if he can stay out of the trainers’ room. His goals are more modest.
“If I can score 30 it would be nice,” Michalek said.
It’s funny how things turn out. In the original deal with San Jose, Senators general manager Bryan Murray was supposed to get Devin Setoguchi and defenceman Christian Ehrhoff for Heatley, but the Sharks traded Ehrhoff to Vancouver. And so Murray went to plan B, Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo (a salary dump), plus a swap of draft picks. It was Plan C, really, considering the Edmonton Oilers trade that Heatley would not approve.
These days, Plan C looks pretty good, not that the mild-mannered Michalek has had much to say recently, or then, about replacing Heatley in Ottawa. The man speaks softly but carries a hot stick.
Did he feel any pressure coming here in place of a two-time 50-goal scorer? Who knows. When we asked him again on Monday, Michalek said he was oblivious to all the buzz about how the deal was perceived.
“Heater and I are different players, we do different jobs on the ice,” is the closest Michalek comes to comparing himself to Heatley.
On Michalek’s contention that he’s a “different player” than Heatley, we’ll say yes and no. Their styles contrast, Heatley the classic sniper of the Stamkos-one-timer variety, but less fleet of foot than Stamkos, while Michalek can flat-out fly — a breakaway threat who never stops working with or without the puck. But Michalek is suddenly being counted on to score, just like the guy who left.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson agrees that Michalek has gradually evolved into Heatley’s job on the team.
“He’s in a role where he’s expected to produce, more than just in a checking role,” Alfredsson said. “He’s not a second or third line guy who chips in once in a while. He’s turned himself into a premier goal scorer, and you’ve got to play accordingly.”
The biggest question of Michalek always concerns his health. To read his injury bio in San Jose and Ottawa is to get depressed. And yet, Alfredsson, too, was labeled injury prone when he couldn’t reach 60 games played in his third, fourth and fifth seasons as a Senator.
“He’s had some tougher injuries than I had, with ACLs, but he’s an extremely hard worker and putting himself into shape after the injuries he’s had is not easy,” Alfredsson said.
Has Michalek changed his kamikaze style in a bid to stay healthy? He says no.
“I don’t think my game has changed. I’ve been healthy and I hope it stys like that,” Michalek said.
Jason Spezza, though, detects subtle changes in Michalek’s approach in the offensive zone, including drifting into scoring zones.
“You can tell he’s finding those soft spots in the slot,” Spezza said, noting that Michalek is also getting “greasy goals” and tipping pucks to add to his proficiency.
“He’s not just scoring goals off the rush, that’s probably why he has so many goals,” Spezza said.
Michalek has received more than a few passes from Spezza, his usual centre. Against Tampa, though, head coach Paul MacLean sought balance by shifting Michalek onto the second line with Nick Foligno and Alfredsson.
Michalek nearly closed out period two with a breakaway, until Victor Hedman used his reach to swat the puck off his stick. As for Stamkos, he was last seen shaking his head after a missed open net and a sprawling save by Craig Anderson that kept his goal total at 16. For now.
He did set up two Lightning goals.
In his spare time, Stamkos is as big a fan as anyone in the game. He admits he doesn’t go to bed at night, home or away, without checking all the goal scoring highlights around the league.
“Technology these days, you have your phone, it pretty much does everything,” Stamkos said.