Micheal Haley is a polarizing figure among Sharks fans. Is he an effective fourth line NHL player or is he a worthless goon? Is he a valuable locker room presence and role model or is he a waste of a perfectly good roster spot that could be used to shepherd along some up and coming prospect? Is his name really spelled with the E before the A like that or was there a clerical mix up in New York in 2008 and nobody bothered to fix it? That last one could be tricky. You ask him.
Haley fits a very Wilsonian mold when it comes to team-building. In the recent past, Wilson (and his coaches) has seemed to gravitate towards one ore more grit players in the lineup. Maybe this hearkens back to the late ‘00s, when critiques that the Sharks were being “too soft and too cutesy,” led to columns like this one. Whatever the reason, players like Micheal Haley, or Mike Brown, or John Scott, or Jody Shelley seem to have a place on this team.
By most metrics, this year could be considered a break out for Haley. Clearly favored by the Sharks’ coaching staff, Haley played more games than ever before in his career (58) and averaged the most ice time (9:10) and the highest zone start ratio (53.96). This treatment predictably led to career highs in goals (T-2), assists (10), and points per game (0.21). I think it’s safe to assume, however, that we all know that’s not what Haley is for; he also posted 128 penalty minutes, good for fourth in the NHL (80 of those minutes were for his 16 fighting majors).
Haley’s most common linemates were Melker Karlsson, Tommy Wingels, and Chris Tierney, and not one of them had better possession numbers with him than without him. This concern can be expanded to fit the entire team. Of the ten players with whom Haley spent the most 5 on 5 ice time, none of them benefited from his presence by way of possession metrics, and many of them were hurt by it.
Opinions on Haley’s season and his time with the Sharks will likely be divided based on how one values hockey’s intangibles. If you think that intangible is a dirty word, and that the league is moving away from enforcers and towards speed and skill exclusively, and that team chemistry should come secondary to simply playing the best available player at each position, then you probably think that Haley’s roster spot is a waste of talent, and were tearing your hair out all year.
If, however, you think there’s more to a team than what happens on the ice, then there is a hypothetical argument to be made for Haley’s presence. While Haley’s skill is almost certainly impeachable, his effort is not. Confirmation bias is a thing, to be certain, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Haley take a shift off, and on a team with an imminent injection of youth, maybe Deboer and the coaching staff sees him setting an example for the amount of work it takes to make it on this team. Maybe they’re sending a message to the organization that effort is more important to them than skill. Maybe they’re using Haley to encourage the younger players not to coast on skill, to go into those corners and grind, to learn the game the right way.
Or maybe they just like violence.
2016-17 Sharks 5v5 Usage Chart (via Corsica Hockey)
Micheal Haley Rolling 25-game score, zone, and venue-adjusted average CF% (via Corsica Hockey)
Player Hero Chart (via Own The Puck)
This highlight is a little tongue in cheek, but it serves as a decent example of my last point. In a March 14 4-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at the SAP Center, Micheal Haley technically broke a one goal tie at the end of the second period with what would eventually be the game winning goal. Marcus Sorensen cruises into the zone, takes a low percentage wrister on Robin Lehner, and goes for a change. The Sabres, to a man, consider the threat over, and all prepare to set up a breakout (Jack Eichel takes a nap). Enter Micheal Haley. There are eight (8) players in the Sabres’ zone at the time of this goal, and one (1) of them is still working. That’s what Haley brings.
What comes next?
Whether or not Haley’s drag on possession is worth the intangibles and grit and sandpaper and what-have-you that he brings will be up for debate over at Chateau Wilson over the next month and change, since he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency come July 1. Haley is just coming off of a one-year, $625,000 deal, the highest of his career, and, despite the offensive dynamo he was this season, I’d be surprised if any team offered him much more.
His last contract draws comparables to familiar faces like Brandon Mashinter in Chicago, Tye McGinn in Tampa, and John McCarthy. Players like Haley often bounce around the league for their entire careers, but considering the lengths to which this coaching staff went to give Haley every opportunity to succeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they extended him another year or two at a comparable rate.