Friday, March 7, 2008

Turtleneck Power

I'm a Habs fan. That means I love all Habs. Every player who wears that sweater is worthy of esteem, even if the role in which he best helps the team is that of cheerleader (hey, Breezer!) that that's clear, I can confess: I have a favourite. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is to me. I've not had a favourite Hab since December, 1995. When my first favourite, my idol, Patrick Roy, was traded to Colorado, I thought I couldn't love an individual player like that again. My fan-heart was broken.

Then along came Tomas Plekanec. I vaguely recall reading about him when he was drafted in 2001. But at that time, he was just another third-round prospect whose scouting report made it sound like he might one day be a decent third or fourth-line centre. The next time he came onto my radar was when he won the fastest skater competition and was named MVP of the AHL all-star game in 2004-05. Then I started paying attention, and I liked what I saw right away. He was small, but a hard worker. He had speed, but could handle the puck while flying, which isn't that common a skill. He was tough and durable, and completely unassuming. Most importantly...he was smart. He never threw the puck away blindly and his anticipation of the play was really impressive.

But what tipped the scales for me and made him my favourite Hab was the beginning of last season, when he was playing with an uninspired Kovalev and a petulent Samsonov. Despite the obvious failure of his line and the blame he was taking for it, he never took a shift off when many of his teammates did on many nights. And when he was demoted to the fourth line, he humbly accepted Carbonneau's decision without complaint. In a season marked by dressing room rancour, that sealed it for me. Oh, and the turtleneck. You've got to love the turtleneck. His break-out after Christmas last season was the one bright spot for me in a failed season for the team, and he hasn't looked back.

It stuns me now, more than it did at the time, that Carbonneau attempted to start the season with Plekanec on the third line. I think his blossoming ability has as much to do with Kovalev's resurgence as Kovalev has for Plekanec's breakout.

So, now that Plekanec has established himself as my favourite player (oh yeah...and the Habs first line centre), two things have become apparent. First, when he lay writhing on the ice after a slash in the latter stages of the Coyotes game last night, the vision of the team without him appeared in many of our minds' eyes and it wasn't pretty. His presence on the PK, and his chemistry with Kovalev offensively are absolutely vital to the team's continued success. The second thing is his contract. He's going to score close to a point a game this year, and is signed for a 1.6 million cap hit through the end of next season. Comparing his value to others of his age and ability around the league, he's dirt cheap right now, and Gainey would be very wise to lock him up long-term while he can. This isn't the kind of player who will score a big deal and then slack off. And his skills aren't the kind of skills that hit flukey highs on the scoresheet and never reappear. I've heard Gainey has approached Plekanec's agent with the idea of initiating talks on a long-term deal, and I hope this is one rumour that's based on truth.

I don't want to say goodbye to another Habs favourite for a long, long time.

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