Defenseman Michalek still adjusting to new system


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Ulf Samuelsson knows a bit about playing defense.

Did it for a few years in this town back in the 1990s, and has a couple of Stanley Cup rings to show for it.

Became something of a folk hero along the way, too.

These days, Samuelsson is the associate coach in Phoenix, where one of his primary duties is working with the Coyotes' defenseman.

It's a job he figures got a whole lot tougher when Zbynek Michalek signed with the Penguins as a free agent in July.

"He's a very good defender -- blocking shots, blocking passing lanes," Samuelsson said recently. "He's one of those guys that you can always use against top players and at crucial times. I knew he was going to do well [with the Penguins]."

And Michalek has.

At times.


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But parts of his game, like puck retrievals and gap maintenance, remain a work-in-progress, because Michalek still is adjusting to operating within the parameters of a new system.

Witness Boston's second goal in the Penguins' 3-2 victory Saturday at TD Garden, when Michalek's inability to establish a good gap against Bruins winger Michael Ryder figured prominently in how the sequence that began with a neutral-zone turnover played out.

Ryder was able to use Michalek, who failed to get his stick on the puck, as a screen by shooting between his legs. That caused goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to pick up Ryder's shot a split-second late, which cost Fleury whatever chance he had to stop it.

Although Ryder's goal didn't prevent the Penguins from winning, it did underscore how Michalek still is trying to get acclimated here.

"We're not finished [working with him] yet," said Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defense.

Michalek, however, has had a decidedly positive impact in some areas.

The Penguins, for example, have the highest-rated penalty-killing in the NHL, and Michalek has been a fixture on that unit. He is averaging 3 minutes, 47 seconds of short-handed work per game, more than any teammate except Brooks Orpik (3:51).

"His strength for me, and the improvement, coincides with the success our penalty-kill has had," Reirden said. "I think he's done a tremendous job on the penalty-kill.

"I think that's been the strongest aspect of his game so far. He's been a large reason why our PK has risen to the top of the league."

Michalek is not a major offensive force -- he had a career-high 28 points in 2006-07 -- but made it onto the scoresheet with an assist on Pascal Dupuis' second-period goal in Boston.

That was just Michalek's second assist in 22 games, after he had put up five in his first 15.

He also has gone 70 games without a goal, and even though scoring isn't a significant part of his role, he acknowledges that he would like to get one.

"That's something that's on my mind every day," Michalek said. "Even though that's not my job, really, once in a while, I like to score, too."

His coaches believe he can do that -- "His shot is definitely an asset," Reirden said. "It's something we want to get involved in the offense" -- but it's not a priority.

"He's a good defender, and he blocks shots and competes at a top level," Reirden said. "That's how he'll continue to be evaluated -- with how he defends, not necessarily with how much offense he adds."

Michalek still hasn't played to his potential on a consistent basis -- blemishes like the Ryder goal still show up from time to time -- but that could change as he continues to adapt to the way the Penguins do things.

The adjustment to his new team has been neither quick nor easy, he said, but it is happening.

"I maybe don't feel quite 100 percent, but it's definitely better than it was at the beginning of the season," he said. "I feel more comfortable with the environment, people, system, city, everything. It definitely [feels] a little more like home now."

Of course, Michalek probably would still be living in Phoenix if the Coyotes' money problems didn't make it impossible to re-sign him.

"In a normal situation, he would have been signed up for a long time, but I think there was some financial distress," Samuelsson said. "That's why Pittsburgh's lucky to get that guy."

NOTES -- Penguins coach Dan Bylsma gave the team off Sunday. ... Forward Dustin Jeffrey returned to their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre, one day after being recalled as "insurance" for the Boston game. ... The Penguins allowed 46 shots in Boston, the third time this season they've given up 40 or more in a game. They are 2-1 when that happens.


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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