TORONTO — Scan the 2016-17 roster of the young Toronto Maple Leafs.
Of the players not cast away on Robidas Island, only one, Brooks Laich, has more National Hockey League experience than Milan Michalek, easily the most useful right-now player the club acquired from Ottawa in February’s Dion Phaneuf blockbuster.
Michalek has 805 NHL games under his belt, including lessons from eight post-seasons. Add four world championships, two Olympic Games, and three seasons as a young pro in the Czech league. He will turn 32 in December, two months into a critical contract year. He believes he’s flipped sides of the Battle of Ontario to provide leadership on a captain-less, last-place roster brimming with promise and prospects.
“I think that’s why they brought me here—to show the young guys the way,” Michalek told Sportsnet this week. In town for a couple days to house-hunt downtown, he was still catching his breath after a lengthy on-ice workout at the MasterCard Centre with crossover whisperer Barb Underhill and a couple of Marlies.
All due respect to Laich, 33, who conducts himself the right way and should be a vocal presence in a rather green dressing room, but left wing Michalek is the veteran addition we see establishing himself in a top-six role this season.
Capable of chipping in on both special teams, Michalek says Babcock has yet to speak to him about how he’ll be used this season, but he’s been hit with a touch of Matthews fever just like the fan base.
“I was asking guys how’s he looking. I want to see how he’s going to play in camp. I think I’ll be impressed,” Michalek said. “They’re all great professionals and great athletes. Everybody can see how much talent they have. If they need a little guidance, I’ll help them, but I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
An important season is staring at Michalek, whose $4 million-a-year contract ends in the spring. Last year was a mess. Injuries to his knee and finger limited the five-time 20-goal man to just 45 games, seven goals and nine assists. The national team regular had to wait until the second round of announcements to discover that he had squeezed onto Team Czech’s World Cup entry.
Babcock has praised the 6-foot-2, 220-pound forward for his size and hockey sense. Excel in Toronto, and Michalek could be dangled as a deadline rental to a contender, or follow the blueprint of P.A. Parenteau—the veteran winger who led the Leafs in scoring and turned that opportunity into a raise and a placement on a playoff team (the Islanders) as a free agent this off-season.
After just 13 games — and one nifty toe-drag goal — for the lottery-bound Leafs, Michalek jetted home to the Czech Republic for a couple weeks to visit friends. Then it was back to North America. For years he’s been training in Montreal, close to Ottawa. Holding a no-trade clause, Michalek needed to sleep on his decision before green-lighting the Phaneuf deal and saying goodbye to our nation’s capital last winter.
“It was like my second home, so it was tough to leave there. I made a lot of friends. It felt like home, but that’s all behind us now,” he said. “I’m actually really excited to be here [in Toronto]. I love the city. So does my wife. We’re expecting a second child now, so it’s going to be good.”
Michalek said his battered body is now healthy (“everything feels good”) and he’s thrilled Toronto brought back longtime friend and countryman Roman Polak in free agency. That he’s starting training camp with the squad instead of dropping in late and injured matters.
“It’ll be different. At least I got to play some games and I know the system now. I know the coaches. I know what they want, and I got to know some guys too,” Michalek said. “That’s going to help me a lot and be comfortable for training camp.”
But first, Prague — where Polak and Michalek will meet the rest of Team Czech on Sept. 4 for World Cup camp and a chance to improve on the country’s sixth-place finish in Sochi.
“I’m really excited. It’s a special tournament. Yeah, we’re probably going to be underdogs, but you never know. If the goalie plays good, I think we have a chance in a short tournament,” Michalek smiled.
A year of opportunity awaits.
“It’s in Toronto, too, so it’s going to be awesome.”