There are a lot of very good reasons why an NHL general manager would prefer to negotiate contracts after the season is over. Contract talks during the season can be distracting for the player involved. They can also create divisions in the room if one player is settling a contract while others are still wondering about their own futures. Then there's the effect on the player's performance. Some players work harder when next year's money is at stake. Others might look like they deserve a new deal for half a season, then collapse and show another side of their play later in the year. I've never really had a big problem with Bob Gainey's decision to (mostly) negotiate player contracts at season's end, because I could understand his reasons.
However, with all due respect to Gainey, none of those reasons apply to Tomas Plekanec. He is the type of player more likely to be distracted if he feels management isn't confident in him, and if his future isn't secure. In the case of the other players in the room, everyone of distinction on the team, with the exceptions of newcomers and pending UFAs Paul Mara and Glen Metropolit, is signed long-term already. And effort has never been Plekanec's issue. He's one of the hardest-working players on the team and has been since his rookie season. Even when he struggled to put numbers up last year (although, 20 goals isn't too shabby for an off-year) he worked hard defensively and on the PK.
Of course, it's a bit early to say Plekanec is back from last year's rough season. But after eleven games, he's maintaining nearly a point-per-game pace with the same great speed and smarts he's always had and a little added sandpaper he hasn't. He's doing all this with no stability on his wings or much help from the mixed bag of linemates with which he's played so far this year. The biggest difference between Plekanec's game last year and his improvement this year is confidence. Instead of peeling off when he crosses the opposing blueline, he's making a move and cutting to the net. That's confidence. Instead of dumping the puck in, he's carrying it and making slick passes to his linemates. That's confidence too. So is his willingness to knock people down on the boards and behind the net to make sure he comes out with the puck.
It's in Bob Gainey's and the Canadiens' best interest to keep Plekanec and to keep him producing with confidence. Most of the budget for forwards is tied up for the foreseeable future, barring a trade, with Gionta, Gomez, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn accounting for more than 21-million dollars between them. Add in the 14.5 of the top-three defencemen and there's not a whole lot of space left to give many raises or buy any premium free agents to fill empty slots.
Second-line centres who produce sixty or more points a season, are strong on faceoffs and can play well defensively and on special teams don't grow on trees and when you find one, it's costly to obtain him. A trade for one would require a combination of picks, good prospects and roster players, and a nice salary payout. Signing one as a free agent would cost in the four-million dollar per annum range. And that's assuming there's a suitable player available with whom a team is willing to part, or who's willing to sign in Montreal. It's also assuming any replacement for Plekanec would fit in personality-wise on a team that's coming together pretty nicely right now. Looking within the organization itself, we see Ben Maxwell and David Desharnais showing some flashes of ability, but hoping either one of them can step into the second-line slot and produce solid numbers next season is a pipe dream. In short, finding another centre to fill Plekanec's slot will be either costly in terms of assets, expensive or both. IF there's one to be found at all. You're just not going to find a player who does all Plekanec does for less.
In Plekanec, Gainey has a young, homegrown player who's developed far beyond original expectations and seems happy to play in Montreal. He's liked by his teammates and isn't the kind of player who'll end up featuring in salacious rumours or turning up drunk in internet photos. His on-ice play is solid in all zones, he's offensively creative, defensively responsible and he works hard every game and every practice. He's the kind of player people can respect. Best of all, he's already a Hab. All Gainey has to do to ensure the relationship continues is make an exception to his off-season negotiation philosophy and make Plekanec a reasonable three-or-four year extension when the window for doing so opens in January.
The benefits of signing him are many. Plekanec would be rewarded for his hard work, dedication and on-ice results, and feel wanted and respected by the team. He said last summer when his arbitration date loomed that he wanted to be paid well, of course, but that it was more important to him to feel respected. A contract extension would be a sign of good faith on Gainey's part, and a boost to the player's confidence. It's also an opportunity for the GM to retain a valuable asset by making Plekanec an honest offer, before his numbers and his value climb out of the reach of a cap-strapped team like Montreal.
The only inherent risk in extending Plekanec in January is that his play could drop off after he signs and it'll turn out he isn't worth the money. I think that's a risk Gainey has to take. Sometimes you have to weigh the options and gamble a bit, and considering the individual involved, there's a better-than-even chance Plekanec will flourish, not regress, with a new deal. The odds are much, much greater that Gainey will end up getting burned by trying to find someone else to take Pleks' place. And, considering the price the GM is paying for a guy like Gomez, it seems he's not adverse to the odd gamble.
What it comes down to is the Habs need Plekanec more than Plekanec needs the Habs. He wants respect and security and I think he's done enough for the team to merit that before it's too late. Git 'er done, Bob.