2011-2012 San Jose Sharks Season Review: Michal Handzus

If we had to hand out a Least Valuable Player award this season (let's call it the Alexei Semenov Memorial Trophy), it's hard to imagine it going to anyone other than Michal Handzus. It was unfortunately a year of tragedy for the big Slovakian center, both on the ice and to a much greater extent off it. The death of his countryman, former teammate and extremely close friend Pavol Demitra in the horrific Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash back in September cast a pall over the year and likely contributed to one of the worst seasons of Handzus' career.

Doug Wilson's decision to tender Handzus a contract on the first day of free agency in 2011 was a curious one to begin with. As we've covered extensively in the past, Todd McLellan has always opted to deploy his forwards in a power-versus-power line matching scheme, using Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau against opposing top lines in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons after utilizing Joe Pavelski in that role in McLellan's first year behind the Sharks bench, 2008-09. This has usually opened up the third line to some softer minutes, which Kyle Wellwood, Torrey Mitchell and Pavelski feasted upon last season to the tune of finishing 2nd, 4th and 10th, respectively, in Corsi/60 among forwards who appeared in at least 30 games that year. Handzus, a career-long defensive specialist, just never made much sense in that role. His acquisition presumably came either as a result of Wilson wanting to model the Sharks after the checking-line employing Canucks team they had just lost to in the Conference Finals (in which case, he should have probably discussed that with McLellan) or in the hopes that Handzus could provide a two-way presence similar to previous McLellan era third-line centers Manny Malhotra and Marcel Goc. It's safe to say that never came to fruition and the Handzus contract remains the biggest (and perhaps only) misstep by the Sharks' front office during the 2011 offseason.

The results were certainly worse than anyone could have reasonably expected. Using David Johnson's excellent even-strength statistics site we can see the impact Handzus had on the teammates he most frequently shared the ice with during 5v5 play this year:

Player Corsi Goals
With Handzus
Without Handzus
With Handzus
Without Handzus
Jamie McGinn 46.5%
Torrey Mitchell 46.6%
Martin Havlat 42.1%
Patrick Marleau 45.7%
Andrew Murray 40.2%

Brent Burns 46.2%
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 47.5%
Justin Braun 47.5%
Jason Demers 41.4%
Dan Boyle 43.0%
Colin White 47.4%
Douglas Murray 35.3%
Jim Vandermeer 45.6%

That's just ugly. Every single player on this list (limited to players who were on the ice with Handzus for at least 60 EV minutes over the course of the season) helped generate offensive-zone possession at a better rate when they were on the ice without Handzus compared to when they shared the ice with him. Especially hilarious are the Sharks' possession numbers when Handzus and Douglas Murray were on the ice together 5v5 as the Sharks operated at around the level we'd expect an AHL team to perform in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a similar story with regards to goal percentage with only Jamie McGinn, Martin Havlat, Brent Burns and Colin White performing better with Handzus than without him - probably more due to variance than anything else. Even then, a closer look reveals it was clearly not Handzus driving things as, when he was on the ice without McGinn, Burns and White, the Sharks posted goal percentages of 18.2%, 36.1% and 42.5%, respectively.

All of this is made even more concerning when considering that Handzus faced a very low quality of competition at evens - almost all of these players were facing tougher opponents in their icetime away from Handzus and yet they were still able to perform substantially better when they were no longer forced to drag him around the ice. It's not difficult to see why Jamie McGinn nearly doubled his shot rate after being traded to the Avalanche - a lot of that was certainly the result of more ice time but much of it is also attributable to Ginner not having to spend as much time with a center completely incapable of keeping the puck in the right end of the rink.

Michal Handzus 4v5 Statistical Overview, 2009-2012

Season Team TOI/60 Corsi Rel QoC SA/60 On-Ice SV% GA/60
2011-2012 SJS 1.34 (5th) 0.563 (6th) 58.8 (7th) .864 (4th) 8.03 (5th)
2010-2011 LAK 2.26 (1st) 2.245 (3rd) 53.8 (4th) .910 (2nd) 4.85 (2nd)
2009-2010 LAK 2.60 (1st) 0.292 (8th) 48.5 (4th) .806 (8th) 9.42 (8th)

Rankings are among forwards on each team with at least 30 GP who averaged at least one minute of shorthanded ice time per game. 7 Sharks qualified in 11-12, 6 Kings qualified in 10-11 and 8 Kings qualified in 09-10.

When announcing the signing on July 1st, Doug Wilson called Handzus "one of the top penalty-killing forwards in this league." He was right in that Handzus logged a lot of minutes for the Kings but his performances were never quite spectacular, although they were certainly steps up from Handzus' penalty killing this year in teal. No Sharks forward was on the ice for more shots against per 60 minutes while shorthanded than Handzus and only Pavelski and Dominic Moore, who spent the majority of the season killing penalties in front of awful Lightning goaltenders, were on the ice for more goals against per 60 on the PK. Handzus' ineptitude while down a man forced the hands of both McLellan and Wilson, with the former severely curtailing Handzus' minutes until he was finally taken out of regular penalty killing rotation when the latter acquired Moore and Daniel Winnik, both decidedly superior PKers.

FTF Grade: F. Handzus was a possession black hole in sheltered minutes at even-strength and was one of the Sharks' worst penalty killers despite being brought in primarily to improve the woeful PK. At 35 years of age, it seems unlikely he'll have a bounceback season anytime soon. Unfortunately, Handzus' deal not only still has a year remaining but, according to Capgeek, is equipped with a no-movement clause that Handzus probably won't waive for the types of teams likely to show interest in acquiring him. A buyout is Doug Wilson's only real option for dumping 'Zus this summer although it's not one ownership is likely to be thrilled about. The team has plenty of better prospective options at third line center--most of whom we'll cover in the coming weeks--from impending UFA and trade deadline acquisition Dominic Moore to other free agents like Daymond Langkow and Paul Gaustad to trade targets like the pricey-but-excellent David Legwand, aforementioned former Shark Goc or likely-unattainable pipe dream Matt Duchene. Hell, Andrew Desjardins would be a legitimate marked improvement over Handzus in the 3C spot.

How would you grade Michal Handzus' 2011-12 Season?