With four days left until Sunday night's Coyotes preseason opener against the Kings, an interesting scenario presents itself. The choice for the greatest number 4 in franchise history is between two men who play the same position, but in entirely different ways. For the first time for this countdown, it's a situation where the numbers will be heavily in favor of one player but he may not be the runaway top choice. It's a discussion on the value of an offensive d-man against a stay at home defensive zone rock. It's a showdown between Fredrik Olausson and Zbynek Michalek.
Olausson was the Jets' 4th round pick in the 1985 entry draft. The Swede would play in two world juniors tournaments and spend another year in Sweden before coming to North America for the 1986-'87 season. His rookie campaign was pretty good as he played in 78 games, scoring 7 goals with 29 assists for 36 points. He also played in all 10 postseason games for the Jets, and his 2 goals and 3 assists tied him for 7th in scoring for the team that postseason. The following year wasn't nearly as impressive as he only appeared in 38 games. But the '89-90 season was the jumping off point for the rest of Olausson's time in Winnipeg. He scored 15 goals and 47 assists for 62 points and it was the first of 5 straight seasons with at least 40 points. His best statistical season would come in '91-'92, when he tallied a career best 20 goals, adding 42 assists for a career best equaling 62 points. It was a season heavily driven by powerplay success, scoring 13 goals as the powerplay quarterback and adding 33 assists for 46 total points with the man advantage, which helps explain his -33 rating for that season. Unfortunately for Olausson and the Jets, they could never equal the postseason success of that rookie season as they would be eliminated in the 1st round of the playoffs in 88, 90, 92 and 93. In the team's never-ending quest to find the right combination of talent to get over the playoff hump, Olausson would be traded to Edmonton on December 6, 1993 for a 3rd round pick.
Zbynek Michalek's road to the NHL was quite different from Olausson's. He came to North America from the Czech Republic at the age of 18, joining the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL. He played well in juniors for 2 seasons, but would not be drafted by anyone. The Minnesota Wild would sign him as an undrafted free agent in September of 2001 and Z would play with their AHL affiliate in Houston. He would actually get to the big league during the 2003-'04 season, making his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins on January 16, 2004. After spending another full season in the AHL because of the 2005 lockout, Z would be traded from Minnesota to Phoenix for Erik Westrum and Dustin Wood on August 26, 2005. For a franchise that has often come out on the bad end of trades, this would be a small transaction that made a huge positive impact. Z would spend the next 5 seasons in the desert, playing in 393 out of a possible 410 games in that span. Michalek didn't impact games too much in the offensive end (although he did post a career best 9 goals in the first season in Phoenix and then a career best 28 points the following year) he did become the Coyotes most dependable defenseman, leading the Coyotes in average time on the ice in every season except 2008. While Zbynek was enjoying individual success, the team wasn't as they missed the playoffs for each of Michalek's first four years in Phoenix. But with the hiring of Dave Tippett before the start of the 2009-10 season, the Coyotes would finally make the playoffs again with a franchise best 107 points. Z would play in all seven games of the epic 2010 7 game series against Detroit, adding 2 assists, but ultimately the Coyotes fell short with a heartbreaking game 7 loss. Michalek would sign with the Penguins as a free agent during the summer, becoming the first major casualty of the Coyotes' ownership woes. Michalek would enjoy two seasons with the Pens, making the playoffs each year, but failing to advance out of the first round. At the 2012 entry draft in Pittsburgh, the Pens and Yotes made a trade sending Michalek back to Phoenix. As he put it:
I really feel like the Coyotes are my team and I’m excited to be coming home
The debate between these two players would look fairly one sided if you only took numbers into account.
- Olausson: 496 GP, 86 G, 249 A, 335 P, 40 PPG, 182 STP, -55
- Michalek: 427 GP, 26 G, 89 A, 115P, 10 PPG, 35 STP, -11
But not all numbers are created equal. Michalek has been as steady as they come for the Coyotes, averaging 22:36 of ice time per game for his Coyote career. He is also a living example of self sacrifice as he led the league in blocked shots during the 2009 season with 271, and was 15th the following season with 156.* Z's importance to this team isn't measured with numbers as evidenced by this exerpt from a piece from the Coyotes official website:
Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney said the Coyotes are glad to have Michalek back on the roster - and under contract for the next three seasons - because they never wanted to lose him in the first place.
"We just thought with the way we play - with Dave Tippett (as coach) and our style – that we needed that No. 1 match-up guy (on defense)," Maloney said. "He was a guy who just fit with us… He was an assistant captain when he left so we know what we’re getting."
Olausson was a fantastic player, playing over 1000 career games in the NHL with 581 points and a Stanley Cup with the 2002 Red Wings (insert obligatory booing and "Dead Wings Suck" chants). But for the purposes of measuring the best player to wear a number for this franchise, sometimes the numbers don't mean anything. Hockey is a game that is more than just the counting stats, and perhaps no Coyote exemplifies this idea more than Zbynek Michalek. With a full training camp to work with this season, and another year to play with the phenomenal Oliver Ekman-Larsson, there's a chance Z could have his best season ever. And if Z has a great year, chances are the Coyotes do too. I am a fan of Fredrik Olausson, but I'm giving the honor of the greatest number 4 in franchise history to Zbynek Michalek.
Disagree? State your case in the comments.
*Author's note: I could only find official tallies of blocked shots starting in 2009. If anyone has any numbers going further back than that for it, please let me know in the comments.