I didn't have a favourite Hab after Patrick Roy left Montreal. Players came and went and I still cheered for the team wearing my increasingly-ragged number 33 sweater. He was the hero of my early days as a Habs fan and the focus of my teenaged devotion. I knew he'd always hold that place for me, and I couldn't imagine admiring another player in that way. Then, along came Tomas Plekanec.
Pleky's not the star Roy was...not by a mile. But he's always been the hardest-working Hab; first on the ice and last off at every practice. He was the one who tried desperately to stop the last empty-net goal the Flyers scored before eliminating the Canadiens from the playoffs two seasons ago, then collapsed in despair when he knew it was over. He's got a quiet integrity about him and a self-deprecating attitude that belies the talent his hard work has allowed to blossom. In these days of "me" and "money" that can make cynics of the most naive of us, Plekanec is refreshing.
Now he's going to arbitration. My heart sank at the news, not because I think Plekanec's asking for more than he deserves after a less-than-stellar season last year, but because of what I think will come out of this process. We're talking about a guy who was so down on himself after putting up less than forty points for the first time since his rookie season, he actually told officials from the Czech national team that he was playing too badly to be of much help to them at last spring's world championships. He also admitted he was thrown by having his name tossed around in the Vincent Lecavalier trade rumours in the middle of last season. Now this player, who I believe struggled so badly last year because of a lack of confidence, is going to go before an arbitration panel with himself on one side of the table and his team on the other.
This can't be a good thing. You know Plekanec and his agent will argue that Pleky's been a very durable player, missing only four games in the last three years...two of those because of a suspension, the other two because of the flu. In that time, he's put up sixty-nine goals and been a stellar penalty killer. Last year's low points total was due to his having fewer assists than goals for the first time in his career, which could conceivably point to the ineffectiveness of his linemates rather than Plekanec himself. He's never been a problem player or embarrassed the team in any way, unlike some of his teammates.
After the player makes his case, the team will get a turn. Bob Gainey will have to sit there, across from a player he likes enough to retain while cutting half the rest of the team loose, and slash his performace to ribbons. He'll have to say that Plekanec took more bad penalties last year, and that his lack of production cost his linemates points. He'll point out that Pleky had lots of opportunities to turn things around, but failed to do the work he needed to do to get better. He'll say Plekanec showed a reluctance to get his nose dirty in tough parts of the rink. And he'll remind Plekanec that he didn't register a point in three playoff games, and that he was benched for the fourth.
I imagine this undressing by Gainey is going to hurt Plekanec. A lot. There's an interview with him in a Czech paper today about his decision to opt for arbitration. He says he'd be lying if he said money isn't part of it. And it's true that in comparison to other guys who have put up similar goal totals in the last three years, he's probably underpaid. But what struck me the most about what he said is that for him, although money's a factor, the biggest reason for his decision is a need to feel respected. He says his contributions to the Canadiens are deserving of respect and he'd like to see the team recognize that.
He goes on to say he's had several offers from KHL clubs, but loves the lifestyle and competition level in the NHL and doesn't want to leave. He likes Montreal and the Canadiens and doesn't mind playing under the microscope. (It probably helps that he's a quiet, hardworking guy who doesn't draw the attention of the media.) He says he understands his overall numbers last year weren't great, even though he thinks twenty goals was a pretty good total, and the arbitrator may not rule in his favour. Even so, he says, he's willing to live with whatever decision is handed down. He vows to be a hundred percent better on the ice next season. But while he's entering the arbitration process with a businesslike attitude, I don't think he's really ready for the harsh words he'll hear from the man whose respect he says he's seeking.
Tomas Plekanec wouldn't be the first player for whom arbitration is the thin edge of the wedge that will eventually separate him and his team. The process usually results in a one-year contract and if that's the case with Plekanec, he'll be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Judging by the speed at which most of his former UFA teammates bolted from Montreal, I'd have to worry that Pleky will follow in their dust when his turn comes.
In his interview in the paper, he talks about the bad taste the failure of the Centennial season has left in his mouth. Whatever the hell happened in the room and around the team last year really turned a lot of the players off Montreal. I hope a fresh start with a whole boatload of new teammates will help Plekanec turn things around and feel better about the Canadiens than he does at the moment.
Most of all though, I hope he and the team can find enough common ground to settle on a contract before the arbitration date arrives. I agree with Plekanec: his contributions are worthy of respect and I think Bob Gainey should give him that. I just don't know if I can stand to hang up my Plekanec number 35 sweater alongside my old 33, for good.