With the San Jose Sharks questioning what has happened to their once potent offense, it is time to take a good hard look at left wing Milan Michalek.
After being drafted sixth overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Michalek was instantly an NHL caliber player and cracked the roster in his first year. Michalek scored his first career NHL goal in his first career game during San Jose' opening contest against Edmonton back in the 2003-04 season.
The only assist on the play went to who, Wayne Primeau? Yes, that is correct, Milan Michalek's first career goal was assisted by one of the players who would later be traded for Joe Thornton.
Michalek was supposed to be the young stud who was going to provide the Sharks a scoring left wing for Patrick Marleau. Before Thornton arrived, Milan Michalek was on track to be the main focus of the Sharks' offense.
However, when Thornton arrived, the show was stolen and nobody really talked about anything other than Thornton and Cheechoo. But in reality, the second line of Michalek-Marleau-and-Steve Bernier was the under the radar group that Sharks fans almost preferred to watch.
Unfortunately, even though the team's second line had created excellent chemistry together, Steve Bernier's play fell off in 2006-07 and the line was broken up. Bernier registered only four more points that season than he did in 05-06 despite playing in 23 more games. Coincidentally, Michalek's numbers improved from 35 points in 81 games in 2005-06, to 66 points in 78 games in 2006-97.
During the latter part of Michalek's career-year of 2006-07, (including the playoffs) he spent the majority of time on the Sharks' top line alongside Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. The Trio performed quite well down the stretch and in the opening series with Nashville but the entire team fell apart against Detroit.
The following season (07-08) marked a franchise best 108 points and second place finish in the Western Conference. However, offensive numbers took a huge hit for the entire team, including Milan Michalek. The Sharks scored just 216 goals after finishing the previous two seasons with 256 and 265. Not absent from the declining number of points was Michalek who backed up his 66 point campaign with just 55 points.
The only explanation for the team's drop in goal scoring (and subsequently Michalek's drop) is because Western Conference teams had adjusted to Joe Thornton's style of play. But regardless of how other teams defended against the Sharks, it was clear that with Jonathan Cheechoo struggling mightily to regain his scoring touch, that the previous year's top line would be no longer.
Towards the end of the regular season and into the playoffs, the "Thornton" line now included Ryan Clowe opposite Milan Michalek. However, once again the Sharks failed to perform in the playoffs and were bounced in the second round.
And finally we get to this past season in San Jose where a new coach and a new system saw Milan Michalek get very little time alongside Joe Thornton. Rookie Head Coach Todd McLellan moved Patrick Marleau to Thornton's left-wing to create a super-line with up-and-coming right-wing Devin Setoguchi.
For the first half of last season, the top line put up an insane amount of offense, leading the Sharks to a ridiculous 25-2-4 start to the season. Meanwhile, during that time period, San Jose's second line became a set-in-stone unit as well. Michalek Michalek joined up with center Joe Pavelski and right-wing Ryane Clowe to create a second unit that performed eerily similar to the Michalek-Marleau-Bernier line of a couple years earlier.
But after such a hot start, the team and its top two lines started to slide. In fact, the majority of the second-half victories were won by much slimmer margins. Coincidentally, if it weren't for the power-play during the second-half, the Sharks were one of the more average teams in the league. Their even strength play was abysmal and the team relied heavily on special teams in order to win games.
Come playoff time, both Thornton's top line and Michalek's second line were seemingly running on empty in terms of a scoring punch. Michalek's unit combined for just four points in the series, while Thornton's line combined for 11 points.
Although the "super line" worked during the regular season, the trio became easy to defend during the playoffs. With both Thornton and Marleau on the same line, and the team's best sniper (Devin Setoguchi) alongside them, the Ducks could match up their top defenders with the Sharks' top line without worrying about the Sharks' secondary scoring.
Granted the Michalek-Pavelski-Clowe line did more than hold their own during the regular season, they did not have the one guy who could just elevate the other two during the playoffs.
Therefore, in order to spread the wealth and make it more difficult for opposing teams to focus their defensive attention, I suggest a significant lineup change for Head Coach Todd McLellan: Flip/Flop Patrick Marleau and Milan Michalek.
Potential top two lines:
Michalek Thornton Setoguchi
Marleau Pavelski Clowe
These two lines make a whole lot more sense in terms of depth and the chemistry that we have seen in the past. If you can remember back to arguably the biggest game of last year's regular season, the Sharks beat the Red Wings 6-5. The game winning goal was scored by the captain Patrick Marleau who received a pass from RYANE CLOWE just in time before Marleau went off-sides. The breakaway goal put the Sharks up by two and sealed the game.
Furthermore, Michalek's best performances have come when alongside Joe Thornton. Now granted that can be said about a lot of players but Michalek has shown he can hold his own without Thornton, unlike say, a Jonathan Cheechoo. But with Michalek's expectations raised for him to finally breakout, putting him back up with Joe Thornton should help him kick his offensive potential back into a reality.
A lineup change like this would be perfect for the Sharks because it means they can finally figure out what they have in Michalek. If Milan can be "the guy" that the Sharks have hoped he would become, then he can prove his worth by playing on the top line. And if Michalek doesn't regain his form, then the Sharks can close the book on him and package him in a trade at the deadline.
So far this offseason, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has been adamant about his team not being complete until that trade deadline, and hopefully that means he is going to keep onto Michalek until that point before he decides whether or not to ship out the 24-year-old winger.