This off-season, the Sens look to be losing their top line (or second line, depending on your view): Jason Spezza through trade, and Ales Hemsky through walking as a UFA chasing the Cup. Oh yeah, and Milan Michalek. Most Sens fans had decided by November that he was gone. He's overpaid, overrated, disappointing, lazy, oft-injured, and any number of other narratives people have come up with. The recent news that he may be the only re-signed UFA has only increased the levels of anger directed toward him. I've shared these opinions too, hoping for a deadline deal last year, but I recently began to wonder why. Perhaps "Milo" has been more a victim of circumstance and inflated expectations than anything else.
Michalek was drafted 6th overall in 2003 by the San Jose Sharks, a draft position that implies potential, but ask any Sens fan about early-round picks, and they'll tell you about Alexandre Daigle and Brian Lee (and Jared Cowen?) to show that draft position isn't the only factor. He played four full seasons with the Sharks, with declining number of games played each season, and declining points each season from the second. Still, a guy who scored 66 points at 22 years of age merited some buzz.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, there was Dany Heatley. Heatley had decided he wanted out, and had rejected a trade to the Oilers, forcing Ottawa's hand to trade him to the Sharks instead for lower returns: Jonathan Cheechoo, Michalek, and an upgrade from 5th- to 2nd-round pick in 2010.
Heatley had been the cheaper replacement for Marian Hossa, had scored 50 goals twice, and had helped Ottawa to the Cup Finals in 2007. Sens fans were still living in the glory years, having reached the Conference Finals in 2003 and the Cup Finals in '07, and having lost in '06 only because Dominik Hasek was a jerk. We still expected excellence. Whatever Heatley was traded for, we expected a fast return to dominance.
Cheechoo was a shadow of his Rocket Richard-winning years. People knew he was looking for a change of scenery, but also knew that perhaps his best was behind him. The 2nd-round pick never materialized, being traded for resident expert Andy Sutton and yet another shot at having a rental push the Sens over the edge. So Michalek came in as a young power forward, expected to fill the gaping hole left by the departure of Heatley.
Michalek's first season with the Sens was pretty well the opposite of reassuring. He scored 34 points in 66 games, while Sens fans watched Heatley dominate in San Jose, even making the Canadian Olympic squad. The following year, Michalek played just as many games, recording one point fewer. But a funny thing happened - Heatley's point totals started to drop too. The Sharks got rid of him that off-season for former Senator Martin Havlat, a trade in which I thought the Wild had won hands-down. In the end, that trade kind of worked out for both teams, in that the traded players only got worse. Heatley would have been bought out last summer if he wasn't injured, and Havlat will be bought out this summer unless someone's willing to trade anything for him. Meanwhile, Michalek was hanging around, with a $4.3-million cap hit ($6-million actual salary in 2013-14), while Heatley still carried a $7.5-million cap hit (only $5-million actual salary). Over the past five years, Michalek saved the Sens money, and ultimately ended up being useful much longer than Heatley. I think that if Heatley had not demanded to leave, his drop in production still would have happened, and Ottawa would have been saddled with an aging star who was too expensive to allow for trades to fill out the roster.
Perhaps Michalek's biggest problem was the 2011-12 season, when he put up 60 points in 77 games, including 35 goals, showing us all how good he could have been. Sens fans had expected production, and for one season out of his five in Ottawa, he delivered. Without that season, we may have looked at the San Jose trade as a fleecing facilitated by Heatley's no-trade contract. Instead, some of the blame falls on Michalek, because we saw what he was capable of, he just failed to deliver 80% of the time.
I think Michalek was a victim of a couple things. Ottawa fans had not yet entered the rebuild mentality that set in around 2010, so Michalek was expected to be a contributor in the vein of the 100-point seasons of the Pizza Line Era, not just a good player who could shelter, mentor, and contribute on a young squad. The truth is, Michalek was not surrounded with the talent that took the Sens to the Cup Finals. The core had either aged too much or left, but the Sens were still trading picks for Andy Suttons in the hopes that they could squeak into the playoffs and maybe even win a round. Michalek was also never going to be Dany Heatley. His numbers were inferior coming in, and to expect Michalek to put up more than 50 points in a season was probably unreasonable. The talent drop-off coming to Ottawa was large, and Michalek was not a dynamic game-changer. He had the tools to work well with good teammates, but he wasn't going to drag mediocre teammates into being amazing. And maybe we should have all looked at the Joe Thornton effect on Cheechoo, and realized what could happen to Michalek. Frankly, I think we expected too much of Michalek, and we expected too much of the Senators. When the Sens didn't deliver, one of the easiest people to blame was Michalek.
Can you name Michalek's second-best season in terms of points in a Senators jersey? I was surprised to see it was 2013-14. The season by which we'd all given up on him, and decided it was high time he left. By no means do I think Ottawa should re-sign him, as that money could be put toward getting this team ready for the future. I just find it interesting that this season he was on par with his career in Ottawa, but we labelled him a disappointment. Even five years later, when Melnyk's budget has tapered our expectations of everything else considerably, our standards for Michalek were still the unfounded expectations of 2009.