In terms of actual money, no member of the Ottawa Senators is being paid more this season than Milan Michalek.
The winger is making $6 million in 2013-14 – although his cap hit is only $4.3 million. He is in the final year of a back-loaded deal he signed with the San Jose Sharks prior to the 2008-09 season.
Michalek has only three goals in 18 games so far this season and is sporting a team-worst minus-seven rating. Prorated over the course of a full season, this would translate into just 14 goals and mark the worst offensive output of his NHL career.
In the 2011-12 campaign, Michalek led the Sens with a career-high 35 goals and was one of their most consistent players. But this year, Michalek is like many other players on the roster who is struggling to find his game.
"I know I haven't been good. I have to be better and everyone is expecting me to score," Michalek told a handful of reporters on Thursday. "It's frustrating right now and hopefully it's going to turn around soon."
If there is a silver lining to Michalek's woes it's that he has been able to stay healthy so far. He missed 25 games with a knee injury last season and clearly wasn't 100 per cent when he returned in time to play in the playoffs. Michalek went overseas in the summer to undergo blood serum therapy for his injured knee and he reiterated on Thursday that he is not suffering from any type of physical ailment that is affecting his production.
When the Senators acquired Michalek back in the fall of 2009, he was the centerpiece in a forced deal with the Sharks that saw Dany Heatley head to the west coast. And the Sens have never regretted the trade, considering that Michalek has been the consummate professional and teammate since joining the team. He can play in all situations and has been a consistent performer when he has been able to stay healthy. Since the deal was made, Heatley has averaged 0.34 goals-per-game while Michalek has been right behind with a 0.33 mark.
A big reason for Michalek's success has been the chemistry he has formed with Jason Spezza. But this season, Ottawa's formerly dynamic duo has failed to generate many opportunities at even-strength. Even Michalek can't explain why he and Spezza can't seem to click this season.
"I don't know the difference this year - if I did it would be good. You just have to work hard and hope things will come around soon," he said.
The 28-year-old is set to become an unrestricted free agent in July and he couldn't have picked a worse time to go into a slump. The Senators have already stated they are a budget team that will stay well below the cap, so it's hard to imagine a scenario where Michalek can come back next season making anything close to $4 million. The club also has to deal with several contracts that are set to expire in the next 18 months or so, including: Spezza, Chris Phillips, Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur and Craig Anderson.
Where does Michalek fit on that priority list? It's hard to say, but his slow start to the season isn't helping his cause.
"I'm just trying not to think about it. We'll see what happens in the future," Michalek said when asked if the pressure of playing in the final year of his contract was a factor in his slow start.
In the past, Bryan Murray has not traded away his veteran players who were set to become unrestricted free agents when his team was in a playoff race. We could all see the writing on the wall that Filip Kuba was not coming back after the 2011-12 season, but the Sens hung onto him for the playoff run and then watched him sign with Florida as a free agent.
The same scenario played out last season with Sergei Gonchar, who stayed with the team past the trade deadline even though he was set to become an unrestricted free agent. Murray eventually found a taker for Gonchar in early June, but he only received a conditional sixth-round pick in return. Even going further back, Murray ended up hanging onto Anton Volchenkov and Wade Redden in seasons where they ended up walking as UFAs.
So what will they do with Michalek this season? A lot depends on the team's performance in the next 6-to-8 weeks. If they are out of the playoff race, we could see a similar situation to what played out in 2010-11, when Murray shipped off several veterans around the trade deadline. If Michalek is healthy, surely someone will take a chance on him and his expiring contract.
But if the Sens are in the playoff race, Murray has shown a reluctance to move any of his key pieces – even though they have the ability to walk at the end of the year.
Of course, if the Sens are going to get into the playoffs this season, they will likely need more production from Michalek.