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Wing and a player

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For all the help Joe Thornton dishes out to teammates, it may come as a surprise to know he may just need some himself.

We're talking about only the third player in league history to post back-to-back 90-plus assist seasons. And that's a pretty exclusive group that now includes Thornton, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, who did it a mind-boggling 12 times.

So when the coach of the San Jose Sharks says he puts a certain player on the top line because "Joe needs someone fast to play with," that grabs your attention.

Milan Michalek is Thornton's left-hand man, and you better not blink because you won't see him standing still for long.

"Joe needs a fast guy to play with," coach Ron Wilson said. "He and Milan seem to feed on each other and really get things done."

Michalek is the prototype skater for the new NHL. He's big at 6-feet-2, 225 pounds, fast and strong, has a nose for the net, is responsible at both ends of the ice and is young. Flashing those attributes was enough to convince San Jose general manager Doug Wilson to get proactive and sign the Czech native to a long-term contract – six years for $26 million.

"My agent told me it's probably going to be a long-term deal so I kind of expected it," Michalek said of the summertime deal. "I was pretty surprised when he told me, and I was excited because I knew that I would be here a long time."

The fact Edmonton aggressively pursued two similar-style restricted free agents – eventually succeeding by signing Dustin Penner off Anaheim's roster – signaled to league GMs they'd better act accordingly with their young, exposed talent if they might not be in a position to match a rival offer sheet.

Michalek may not be a household name around the league, but his talents are hard to miss on the ice. He even catches teammates unaware.

"I had no idea, even playing against him, the power and the skill he possesses," Jeremy Roenick, new to the team in 2007-08, said. "He epitomizes pure, sheer talent with brains. And you don't find that too often with players."

Michalek's greatest asset is his speed. It's commonplace to see him leading the rush, driving hard down a wing, which often creates a big gap between defenders and opposing forwards. If he's angled away from the middle, Michalek has fat passing lanes to Thornton or another trailer and scoring chances result at a high rate.

"His speed just creates so much more for me," Thornton said. "He backs everything off and slows the game down for me.

"He’s just so fast, strong and he has a great shot. He sees the ice really, really well. He's just the perfect player for this new-age hockey."

Michalek, who turns 23 in early December, admits to being blessed with natural speed, but also dedicates time in the offseason to strengthen his legs by doing a number of quick-burst and weight training exercises. He and his older brother, Phoenix defenseman Zbynak Michalek, work out with a small group of other NHLers in Montreal.

"I've never seen a guy go from zero to full speed in three strides, and he has that ability," Roenick said. "I’d say 98-99 percent of the players need half a zone – five or 10 strides – before they hit their peak. Milan can do it within three. Defensemen have fits with guys like that."

The Sharks used a first-round pick – the sixth choice overall – to nab Michalek, viewed by many as the most NHL-ready prospect of the 2003 draft class. Like the first four players selected – Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Nathan Horton and Nikolai Zherdev – Michalek made a sudden impact, just months after his selection.

Michalek scored a goal in his first NHL game, but suffered a season-ending knee injury during his second outing, touching off a series of frustrating starts and stops due to health.

But rehabilitated, rejuvenated and stronger than before, Michalek burst back on the scene in 2005-06 with 17 goals and 35 points in 81 games. He took another step last season, gaining almost exclusive first- and second-line duty, and responded with career bests in goals (26), assists (40) and points (66) in addition to being a factor in the postseason with four goals and six points in 11 contests.

"He's got all the tools. Being so big and so fast, he's hard to defend and he's able to go into the corner with anybody and win the puck," team captain Patrick Marleau said. "He's so young, too, so he's figured it out pretty early."

"He's one of the best young players in the league," teammate Mike Grier added. "If he keeps developing and putting up numbers, he's on his way to being an All-Star."

Consistency is always key with young stars, and that's what Ron Wilson is looking for this season. Michalek finished strong in that regard last year. After going scoreless during a stretch of four of five games, he never went more than two games without a point in San Jose's final 20 contests. In that span, Michalek scored 11 goals and totaled 25 points.

"I think he's getting more confident to be a goal-scorer," his coach said. "That's what we want from him without sacrificing anything defensively. Milan has to understand we expect offense from him consistently, and I think he's starting to provide that."

Just the same, he's not the first name people think of when they hear the name San Jose Sharks. Being soft-spoken and needing a couple years to learn a new language contributes, but the proximity of playing on the West Coast for a team that visits the East for just five games is probably the biggest factor.

"For people in Toronto and New York, he's flying under the radar. I don't think he minds that to be honest. He goes about his business," Thornton said. "For me, I don't know too many left wingers who have as much as Milan. He has everything. He just loves playing the game and he brings a good attitude every day."