What’s Up With Michal Handzus?

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When the San Jose Sharks signed Michal Handzus last offseason, I gave it my stamp of approval, including it on my list of the offseason’s 20 best signings (in part because I wanted to have a Sharks’ signing on the list if possible, but I did genuinely like the signing as well). Of the few prototypical third-line centers who were available as unrestricted free agents, I viewed Michal Handzus and Eric Belanger as the two best based on their level of play last season, so I was pleased Sharks’ GM Doug Wilson was able to procure one. I would have preferred Jason Arnott, also UFA, given the similar cap-hit to Handzus (and not insignificantly, the one-year term versus two), but Arnott had mostly been a top-six forward throughout his career, so maybe Doug Wilson did not trust his defensive abilities enough to sign him as pivot of the Sharks’ checking (third) line. I cannot read Doug Wilson’s mind, although Sharks fans have to be wishing he could read mine (about Arnott), considering how the Handzus signing is working out, where Arnott is thriving in St. Louis.

You see, Michal Handzus turned 34-years-old last march, and appeared to be slowing down ever-so-slightly last season. Not by much–Handzus at 90% of his former capacity was still a very good third-line center, good enough for most Sharks fans to like the signing at the time.

However, it should not have been good enough for Doug Wilson, the GM, to actually sign the player for two years (or at all) without assurances of his fitness level. When fans, or bloggers like myself, give our opinions on signings, we do so half in the dark. We take our impression of the player in question as last seen, weigh it against his contract or cap-hit, and give our opinion. But there is always an unspoken stipulation in there which goes something like, (we like the signing)… “assuming he’s still the same player as last we saw, assuming you, our General Manager, did your due diligence, examined Handzus’ fitness test results, and determined that he still has gas in the tank, which we assume you did, otherwise why would you have signed him?”

That’s the leap fans take when they make their judgements about a signing or trade. There are many apologists out there for NHL General Managers who claim their GM couldn’t have known something or other would happen, even when fans did, but in truth, General Managers have more information at their disposal than we do, not less. Much more. That’s what’s so perplexing about how the Handzus signing.

For those who don’t watch every Sharks game, let’s just review for a minute. Michal Handzus is the Sharks’ highest paid bottom-six forward by a sizable margin. He was brought in to center the Sharks’ third line, and to essentially captain the penalty kill and bottom-six forward group. Make no qualms about it, he was brought in to be the Sharks’ best bottom-six forward.

But the reality of the signing has differed greatly from expectations. Handzus was a healthy scratch last game, and even when he does play, he often gets fourth-line minutes at even strength. As for his role on the penalty kill, Handzus, who was as first among Los Angeles Kings’ forwards in shorthanded ice time last season, now sits at fourth in that metric on the Sharks among forwards, even though the Sharks are a significantly worse penalty-killing team than the Kings.

But here is what’s most confounding. The company line we all got from Doug Wilson and the Sharks when they signed Handzus was how his age was not an issue because of what a supreme athlete they claimed he was, and what great shape they said he always keeps his body in. Here is one of Doug Wilson’s quotes from when he signed Handzus.

“He’s a true professional. He trains very hard. He takes very good care of himself and we think he fits very well with this group and what we’re looking for.”

However, on multiple occasions this season, I have heard Sharks TV analyst Drew Remenda remark how clear it is that Handzus is less effective on the second night of back-to-back’s, so much so that Todd Mclellan even hedges his minutes for those games. Obviously, this suggests the coaches lack confidence in his fitness level. Either that or Handzus isn’t getting a fair shake.

And for Drew Remenda to say something that negative about a Sharks’ player, and state it as fact, it really has to be obvious to not just him, but Todd Mclellan, Doug Wilson, and the entire Sharks organization. I imagine it has to be such an undisputed fact that everyone agrees with it, signs off on it, and Remenda is allowed to say it without repercussions.

Now I don’t mean that literally, but in the past, when there has been any room for subjectivity or doubt about a Sharks’ player’s struggles or shortcomings, Remenda has erred on the side of not saying anything. Sharks fans went years hearing from the Remenda and Hahn broadcasting team about how Patrick Rissmiller and Mike Grier (on one knee) were perfectly adequate third-liners, only to later hear about how those two players were a major part of the Sharks’ playoff problem once they were traded.

So for Drew Remenda to point out that Handzus struggles playing 14:40 two nights in a row, the Sharks family must feel he is in obvious decline, with absolutely no room for disagreement or doubt.

Which begs the question, what happened? How is a player who “trains hard’ and “takes very good care of himself” struggling to play back-to-back’s at age 34 while Nicklas Lidstrom is winning the Norris Trophy at 40-years-old? Was Handzus really in great physical shape when the Sharks signed him just last summer, like they suggested he was? It doesn’t seem that way now, not according to Mclellan’s coaching, or Drew Remenda. And if not, how were the Sharks so easily fooled? It doesn’t make a whole lotta sense.

And looking ahead, what does that tell us about Handzus’ prognosis for the playoffs? I am no expert on the difficulties of back-to-back’s at the NHL level as compared to, say, the NHL playoffs, but I would imagine playing fifteen minutes two nights in a row during the regular season is cake compared to playing significant minutes in the Western Conference Finals. If Handzus can’t even maintain his average ice time of 14:40 two nights in a row without a drop in performance now, or worse, earlier in the year, how can we expect him to hold up three rounds deep in the playoffs? Because that’s what he was signed for. I’m having a hard time picturing Michal Handzus as a difference maker deep in the playoffs when his fitness (allegedly) is not even good enough to play back-to-back’s effectively.

Now, I should say that I am a fan of Handzus when he’s healthy and on his game. As I already mentioned, I listed him in my best signings of the offseason blog based on his play last year in relation to his new contract, and the assumption that he would continue to play at that same level this season or Doug Wilson wouldn’t have signed him. However, it is concerning that he has been having noticeable trouble with back-to-back’s from early on in the season.

Moreover, I think Handzus’s struggles fresh off signing a two-year, 5M contract have to make you question Doug Wilson’s judgement, especially when you consider that most of Wilson’s other signings and acquisitions this season not named Brent Burns have turned out similarly. Andrew Murray, another depth forward signing last offseason, was waived earlier this year after an unproductive stint with the Sharks, while defenseman Jim Vandermeer has been unable to beat out Colin White or Justin Braun to actually play on defense, the position he was signed for. And while newly acquired forward Daniel Winnik has been effective, if unproductive, so far since being acquired from Colorado, the likely pricier of the two forwards acquired from the Avalanche, T.J. Galiardi, has already found himself in the coaches doghouse, having been benched for the last two periods of saturday night’s game vs. St Louis, along with the last of Doug Wilson’s offseason forward signings, Brad Winchester, and Jim Vandermeer who was playing up at forward. Or should I say not playing, up at forward.

What does it say when almost every signing Doug Wilson brings in for the coaches, they spit back out? It seems Michal Handzus might just be the tip of the iceberg this season in that regard. Even Brad Winchester, who has performed well offensively given his fourth-line role, does not appear to have the trust of the coaching staff defensively or in matchup situations.

It’s a blog for another day, perhaps, but the question had to be raised. What do you think? Sound off in the comments!

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Written by Shark Circle

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