Thursday, February 2, 2012
Patience Wearing Thin With Tomas Plekanec
When Tomas Plekanec was first breaking into the NHL, he was seen as a can't-miss prospect. A Montreal 3rd round pick in 2001, Plekanec played an intense, two-way game, giving his 110% at all times, meaning that even if his offensive production wouldn't be significant, he would at least be a strong third or fourth line forward. In fact, some even saw him as a future pest-type; the kind of guy who will outwork you every shift and get in your face - the type you hate to play against. At the time, he was compared to top Toronto Maple Leaf prospects Matt Stajan and Kyle Wellwood; we all know who won out in that battle now!
Playing behind the likes of Saku Koivu and Mike Ribeiro, Plekanec established himself as a responsible workhorse, earning a regular spot with the NHL club. Then, the 2007-08 season happened where Plekanec followed up his first 20-goal campaign by scoring 29 and totaling 69 points. An offensive star was born, it seemed. However, the 2008-09 season, with all of its Centennial festivities, was a disaster for many reasons. The team was in turmoil both on and off the ice, and the 69-point Plekanec had disappeared, with the Czech native scoring just 39 points in 80 games. Worse, he was a minus player for the first time in his North American career, finishing the regular season a -9, before also being held off the scoresheet in 3 playoff contests. Had the previous season been a fluke? Management seemed to doubt that, allowing captain Koivu to walk via free agency and replacing him with a declining Scott Gomez, increasing the offensive burden that would be placed on Plekanec's shoulders.
Yet, Plekanec responded. 2009-10 saw him set a career high with 70 points in 82 games. He still again took a backseat to others come post-season, producing just 11 points in 19 games, but he still helped the team make it to the third round before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers.
There were big expectations on the team in 2010-11 following that magical run, yet there were also big question marks at the center position. With Gomez's production in freefall by this point, Plekanec could not repeat his 70-point season, scoring 57 in 77 games. These are great numbers for a 2nd line center, but just not enough when a team is relying on you as its only competent top 6 pivot. There was plenty of reason to expect a bounce back in 2011-12, given Plekanec's trend of an up year following a down year, yet his game has gone south this season. Not only has he been limited to 10 goals and 33 points in 50 games thus far, but his intensity and implication seems missing on most nights. His -12 rating certainly jumps off the page when looking at his statistics, and it is reflective of his effort level on many nights. Sure, he remains a competent defensive forward, but he is far softer on the puck and a great deal less intense than the Plekanec who first burst on to the scene.
A part of the problem is that Plekanec is no longer that young up-and-comer from whom offensive output was a bonus. He is now looked upon to be a premiere center being paid $5M per season to score points. And yet, he is being outscored by 5'7" sophomore David Desharnais who makes less than 1/5 of his salary. His inconsistencies are beginning to handicap the Canadiens' ability to flesh out a reliable future roster plan.
Now... I like Tomas Plekanec, please understand that. I'm not suggesting he is part of the real problems with this team. But is he part of the solution? I'm not confident that he is capable of shouldering the immense responsibilities placed upon him of being both the team's top offensive and top defensive center. The team cannot afford to live and die with his ups and downs. Plus his annual near disappearing act in the postseason (even if his point production isn't altogether terrible) will become a bigger issue as the team builds towards being a true contender.
This is part of why his name has slowly started creeping into trade rumours. Unlike a Scott Gomez or Tomas Kaberle, Plekanec still has years of good hockey left in him, and despite an elevated salary, there are likely to be some takers if Pierre Gauthier put his name out there. There is frustration over his play this year, even though he is still on pace for 54 points. The toughness in his game is gone, and he is no longer getting in anyone's kitchen unless it's P.K. Subban's at practice. The other problem is that, though they are working on changing it, the Canadiens remain a relatively small team at forward; a situation that Plekanec's 5'10", 189 lbs frame does not help. If Plekanec and Desharnais are your 1st and 2nd line centers, you will have trouble matching lines against teams with a power forward or two down the middle.
The issue with moving Plekanec, of course, is that given he remains a contributor on the ice, he will be tough to replace. I'm not at all calling him dead weight, or suggesting he should be moved at all costs. I would never advocate dealing him unless a concrete plan for "upgrading" his spot was already worked out. If the Habs had a trade for a signed Ryan Getzlaf agreed upon, then I would be happy to send Plekanec elsewhere to acquire assets that might be used in picking up the Ducks' star. Perhaps more realistic is a scenario where the Canadiens finish the season with a top 8 or 6 pick for this June's entry draft and are able to send Plekanec to a team for assets that let them move up to 2nd overall where they could draft Mikhail Grigorenko, ushering in a new era in Montreal with a quick one-season transitional re-tooling. I would call it "highly unlikely" that Pleks is traded before the upcoming deadline, but also don't consider him an untouchable as the team focuses on building for next year.