Is there any logic to trading Milan Michalek?

Does Milan Michalek's greatest value for the Senators lie with trading him? (Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

Proof that the worst time of year is upon is always the same. It starts when we're forced to watch other teams compete for the Stanley Cup. We watch them and make comparisons between their players and our players. We convince ourselves, "Hey, that could be us!" It is the time of year between the end of our season and the NHL Entry Draft and start of the free agency period for the next season. There's not much for fans to do during this lull except fantasize about how they can make their team better. This is almost always manifested in "trade player x" speculation. Most of these trade ideas are embarrassingly one-sided (Of course the Philadelphia Flyers would trade Brayden Schenn for Sergei Gonchar! Who wouldn't?) but there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Just like no one fantasizes about matching some of the lottery numbers, no one fantasizes about a even trade benefiting both teams to shore up a third pairing on defense. These are fantasies--swing for the fences or not at all.

A few weeks back, Graeme Nichols kicked off fantasy trade season by asking whether now was the time to explore trading Milan Michalek. Hey, at least it wasn't Jason Spezza. Now, Nichols did not get into who the Senators might consider trading Michalek for in that piece, thus technically not making it a "fantasy trade" piece. Instead, he took an unbiased look at Michalek's performance, contract, and perceived value on the market and asked if the sum of those things justified trading him. It's an open-ended question, one which Senators GM Bryan Murray and his staff are hopefully asking themselves as well.

And while there's a pretty compelling case there that Michalek's trade value is at its peak, the case for what Ottawa looks like after trading Michalek is a lot less compelling.

What does Ottawa need?

At this point, the team could simply roll a cutout of Bryan Murray to the podium with a little recorder that answers "top-six forward" to every question asked of it. Has there ever been an off-season where Murray didn't identify this as a team need? I can't think of one, and I can't imagine a time when it will happen.

And yet, despite the humor of the answer, it's not entirely untrue. The relative ineffectiveness (foreshadowing: get ready for Jason Spezza week after the draft!!) of Ottawa's top line during their playoff series demonstrated their need for more scoring. It wasn't much of a secret--head coach Paul MacLean gave Bobby Butler, Jakob Silfverberg, and Mark Stone opportunities in the top six. The team needed more goals from their forwards, and anyone who scored a goal anywhere was going to get their shot.

Unfortunately, those three players were only able to accumulate one point--Stone's assist on Spezza's game-winner in game five--for all of their effort. That doesn't mean they'll never succeed; we'll talk more about that later. What it does tell us, in no uncertain terms, is that Ottawa has holes up front.

What do the holes look like?

Daniel Alfredsson hasn't retired yet, so let's assume he returns next year. We can reasonably say that there are four forwards on the team who fit the top-six billing: Michalek, Spezza, Alfredsson, and Kyle Turris. The lines currently look a little like this:

Michalek-Spezza-O
O-Turris-Alfredsson

Those O's are where the holes are. Ha, get it? Anyway, what happens if Michalek is traded? There are a few possibilities, but for the sake of debate, let's say that Michalek is only traded as part of a package for an upgrade. Leaving out speculation of what that package would look like, Murray could either flip Michalek for a forward or a defenseman. Who the defenseman is doesn't matter since we're talking about needs in the top six, and since we're only looking at needs in the top six, the forward we're going trade for is Alex Ovechkin, just so we can plug in a name. Again, the trade package isn't relevant here, the look of the top six is. If you're one of those people who can't play the "what if" game because you always answer, "But I'm not..." just pretend we traded for Bryan Bickell instead.

If Michalek is traded for a forward, here's the new top six:

Ovechkin-Spezza-O
O-Turris-Alfredsson

Look familiar? Still two holes there. So, while the top line has gotten a major improvement, overall the move is a lateral one--shut down the top line and there's no difference between the lineup with Michalek and the new one.

If Michalek is traded for a defenseman, here's the new top six:

O-Spezza-O
O-Turris-Alfredsson

Now there are three holes. So... that's worse.

Filling the holes

Of course, actual live hockey players filled in those spots this year. Colin Greening's 37 points (17G, 20A) were pretty good for a rookie outing, and Nick Foligno's 47 points (15G, 32A) were good for fifth in team scoring--and there was no trade of Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly to move him up the standings this year! Both players were serviceable by anyone's evaluation, yet both spent time on the fourth line for more than a few games, and that's kind of a red flag.

What about Jakob Silfverberg, Mika Zibanejad, Mark Stone, and Bobby Butler?

Timeout for sanity!

We're about to touch on a serious area of ambiguity: predicting the future. Usually I can do this, but I left my psychic pants at the cleaner's. Sorry.

Here's the bottom line: no one can be right about this part. Anyone with half a brain will immediately recognize that assuming prospects won't play up to their potential is equally as flawed as assuming they will. It's a 50/50 shot until we see what they actually do. There's just no way to know how a player is actually going to perform in any given year, and if there were, there'd never be a draft pick that's a bust.

Since it's not reasonable to make an assumption either way, the only practical approach is to plan for disappointment. It's better to wind up with more goals than you thought you'd have as opposed to too few. That's how players get labeled as "bad guys" and traded out of town. So, it's not that these players we're about to discuss aren't capable of succeeding, it's that the damage caused by hoping they will and having them fail has more of an impact than thinking they won't and having them succeed. We've seen this past year just how much good over-achievement can do in the locker room and in fan relations.

Filling the holes, continued

Jakob Silfverberg, as every Sens fan knows by now, had a fantastic season in the Eliteserien--one that many have compared to Peter Forsberg's last season there before coming to North America. Forsberg's first NHL season was shortened by the lockout, but his 50 points in 47 games was a pace for an 87-point season--and that was in the obstruction era.

Does that mean Silfverberg is going to score 87 points next year? It's highly doubtful. As I've noted before, SEL success does not always translate to NHL success. It does not necessarily require NHL-caliber talent to dominate in the SEL.

Mika Zibanejad, ditto. And he didn't even have as good a season over there.

Our own Dave Young discusses Bobby Butler's struggles here. There's no reason to believe he's ready to slide into a top six role--at least, not in Paul MacLean's system.

Mark Stone is another option, but there's no guarantee that he's ready. His claims to fame so far are some outstanding junior numbers and one outstanding pass in a playoff game. And let's not diminish the play--it was an outstanding pass. The problem is that it was his only good play. Stone played 11 other shifts in that game, and accomplished nothing. Now, it's clearly unrealistic to expect a player to produce on every shift, but once out of every 12 times is not particularly outstanding. Ottawa's top line generally sees about 25 shifts per game, and at his current pace, that would mean Stone has two good shifts a game. The Senators would need more than that from a top-six player, and there's no evidence to support the idea that Stone is ready to be that player... yet.

It's possible that Silfverberg, Zibanejad, and Stone all start their seasons in the AHL. Bobby Butler probably should as well, but he's on a one-way deal.

Though it's likely one of those players will start the season in that top-six spot--smart money is on Silfverberg, as the team thought he was ready to play in the NHL last year--Senators fans have plenty of recent experience to draw on in players like Butler, Peter Regin, Nikita Filatov, and Brandon Bochenski to know that slotting a player based on, shall we say, exciting expectations usually leads to disappointment.

There's no two ways about it: Assuming one of our prospects can replace Michalek is a mistake--the kind that could sink a season.

Michalternatives

Nichols brings up an excellent point when we look at Michalek's shooting percentage. Namely:

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.

Small is an understatement. It's clear Michalek overachieved this year. If we meet in the middle of his career average and high for shooting percent and call it 13 even, on 212 shots this year, he'd have 28 goals (27.56 to be precise, but we'll call that fraction a post and in) instead of 35. This would still represent a career high for him, but would be closer in line with the 25-goal range we've seen out of his career so far.

Nichols uses this fact to argue:

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[...]

Assuming Michalek hovers around his 25G-25A numbers for the remainder of his career, I wondered just how replaceable those numbers actually were. Here's the breakdown of 50-point players per team in the NHL last year.

50-freq_medium

Most teams have about 4 out of 21 skaters break that threshold. That indicates a rarity that demonstrates the 50-point threshold as a top-line talent, or an top-end defenseman. This knowledge gives us a greater clarity into the ease of replacing Michalek. At this point, our own opinions can no longer be a factor. It doesn't matter that you think a top line player should have more than 30 goals and more than 40 assists, and that Michalek doesn't belong in that echelon because he's not hitting those numbers. Here's the reality: In today's NHL, if you're putting up 50 or more points, you're probably playing on your team's top line. Unless, of course, you're playing for an especially deep team like the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, or Pittsburgh Penguins. That's not my opinion; it's a fact supported by the distribution of those players by team.

So, when we say Michalek is easily replaceable, we're saying that a top talent is easily replaceable. That's silly, and it's silly to dismiss Michalek's numbers as being generated by Jason Spezza: Spezza's talent didn't translate into consistent success for Butler, Stone, Zibanejad, or Greening.

Free agents?

Just a quick word here, now that we know what the threshold of a Michalek replacement should be. Among soon-to-be unrestricted free agents, there were merely eight players who met that criteria. They are, in terms of descending points:

Not all of those players will even reach unrestricted free agent status. Among those that do, which of them can realistically be expected to sign a contract with a cap hit close to Michalek's?

The restricted free agent list is even shorter and messier--scenarios where the Senators land Matt Duchene usually begin with some mind-altering substance--so we're not going to even discuss it here.

Conclusions

There's not much doubt that Michalek's trade value is at its peak. It's unlikely we'll see similar production next year without a large increase in shots, and he's too valuable on the penalty kill to get the minutes for that to happen. The problem is that trading him is at best a lateral move, leaving the team with the same number of holes in the top six as it currently has.

As we've seen, replacing his production is not as easy as it sounds. 50-point players are harder to come by than our expectations would have us believe. There's no arguing the Senators have some promising players in their pipeline, but those players have also not shown any body of work demonstrating an ability to equal Michalek's production. Sure, you could trade him and assume someone is ready to step in, and you could be right--but would you jump from a four-storey height knowing the odds of survival were 50/50 and assume you'd survive?

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