Starkey: It's time for Martin, Michalek

| Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012

Of all the trades the Penguins could make by Monday's deadline, here is one that makes eminent sense and wouldn't cost the club a single asset:

Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek in exchange for ... their former selves.

Aside from Sidney Crosby's return, there is no more critical issue facing the Penguins over their final 22 games.

The team's two highest-paid defensemen — recently split up as a pair — can't be putting up minuses faster than Phil Mickelson. That has to change. Maybe it has begun to change, based on their performance Tuesday against the New York Rangers.

If this team wants to be playing hockey instead of golf in June, the M&M boys must recapture the form they showed for much of last season.

Forget about trading Martin or Michalek, unless general manager Ray Shero takes my advice and offers Martin to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Ryan Malone (that would be one good-but-overpaid player with three more years on his deal for another, but the Lightning would have to comply, and Shero, to his everlasting credit, doesn't take my advice).

Martin has three years and $15 million left on his contract. He is a team-worst minus-11. Michalek has three years and $12 million. He is minus-10. Plus-minus is hardly the be-all, end-all in appraising performance, but in this case it's pretty darn accurate.

Like it or not, these guys probably are sticking around. The best outcome, therefore, is for them to find their games. They need to string together a bunch like the one Tuesday in a 2-0 win. Both did what they do best in what might have been the Penguins' finest all-around performance of the season.

Michalek was breaking up plays left and right and making life difficult for New York's forwards. He led the team with three blocked shots.

Martin, playing with Kris Letang because of Brooks Orpik's absence, deftly moved the puck and was all over the ice. He logged 26-plus minutes.

Afterward, Martin acknowledged his rough season.

"Definitely, it's been a long year," he said.

He was asked what it means to be at his best.

"I'm at my best when I'm just playin' and skating and not getting too worried about what people are saying," Martin said.

His main issue?

"It's just something (where) maybe I'm thinking too much," he said. "If I had the answer, I think it'd be a lot easier. But I'm just trying to find it."

A lower-body injury slowed Martin earlier this season. His confidence clearly has waned at times.

It's been a case of a good player having a tough year — and a contract that makes for unrealistic expectations. The $5 million tag comes up so often you'd think that it and not '7' was the number on the back of Martin's jersey.

The good news is that more than a quarter of the season remains. Plenty of time to round into playoff form.

As Martin put it, "What's important for me, personally, is to find a way to get through it and be playing good come playoff time."

Nobody has to tell either man why their partnership was broken up 12 days ago after the Penguins spotted Tampa Bay two early goals.

"It wasn't going well," Michalek said. "We all knew it. We both felt there is better in us. (The coaches) made a decision to try to get us going.

"It's a long season, so nobody says we won't be back together soon. We know we have to play better."

Michalek's off year is easier to explain. He has missed 21 games on account of a broken finger and a concussion. When he's on, he is positionally sound and blocking a ton of shots.

When he's not, he is flailing aimlessly from his knees (the only thing that begins with a Z and slides on the ice more often is a Zamboni).

It took these two awhile to get going last season. After things came together, they formed an excellent No. 2 pairing behind Orpik and Letang. There is no reason that shouldn't happen again.

It better, if the Penguins want to be playing hockey in June.

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