Tuesday, December 22, 2009
I saw Tomas Plekanec meet a personal goal last night, and I saw him fiercly acknowledge it to himself. A lot of people might have thought the excitement he showed at the winning goal in Atlanta was because of its dramatic nature, happening in OT the way it did, and on such a beautiful play by Plekanec himself. But beneath his genuine pleasure at the two points for the team, there had to be a special bit of satisfaction for him on an individual level. The assist on Bergeron's winner was Plekanec's fourth point of the night, the first time this season he's accomplished the feat. But more important to him, I believe, was the fact that it was his fortieth point on the year. He has now officially eclipsed and effectively erased the disaster that was his last season. His forty points in 38 games has put to rest the lousy 39 in 80 he posted last year.
I have always had a great admiration for Plekanec. I liked him from the time the Canadiens drafted him, and his skillset is the kind I most appreciate in a player. I enjoy watching a guy who works hard, is fast, can play both ends of the ice effectively and never, ever quits. That's what I see in Plekanec. Even better, though, is the new mental resolve he's exhibiting this year. A lot of players would have gone home depressed after last season's abysmal showing. Most would not have come back with the completely overhauled attitude Plekanec has now. He's still using all the skills he's always had, but he correctly identified his lack of confidence last year and has somehow found in himself an ability to fix the problem.
As a result, we're seeing Pleks come into his prime...which is just about right for a player who turned 27 in October. He's playing with confidence this year, and then some. Not only is he sixth in NHL scoring overall, he's second in the league in assists, behind Joe Thornton. He's also a key cog in the PK machine that suddenly finds itself seventh in the league, playing the most time shorthanded of any other forward. It's conceivable he'll be at least nominated for the Selke trophy if he keeps this up.
So, the question is, what does Gainey do about him and his expiring contract? The Habs' GM finds himself painted into a rather uncomfortable salary-capped corner, keeping company with the wickedly overpaid Scott Gomez. He had the opportunity last summer to ink Plekanec for more years, at a bargain, but he didn't trust the player to rebound. Instead, he decided to take the safe route and give the guy one year to prove himself. When you look at the facts, it was the sensible thing to do. Plekanec had had one strong season, followed by a really crappy one. He was so obviously distraught by his poor showing, not many people would have expected him to completely turn it around the way he has.
In this case, the safe route didn't take into account the mental strength of a player with a lot to prove to himself, or the blossoming skills that would benefit from being set loose from the Kovalanchor. The safe route also didn't give a hint that Plekanec would roundly outplay Gomez as the team's top centre, making the latter redundant. So now Plekanec is going to cost more to re-sign this year. His performance is stellar, and with Gomez' contract skewing the salary structure on the team, the agents will be circling.
Gainey has three choices now. He signs Plekanec when the contract negotiation period opens in January. He signs Plekanec when the season ends and he can see how the rest of the year plays out. Or he lets Plekanec go, either through trade or free agency.
The obvious problem with signing him is the cost, now that his numbers are still strong halfway through the year. At this point, even if his production dropped by half for the rest of the season, he'd still end with good stats. Since waiting won't really affect the outcome of his season in terms of negotiating power all that much, I think it would be a show of good faith for Gainey to start negotiating in January. The GM didn't have confidence in Plekanec last summer, but sometimes you have to take a chance, and Plekanec is a great candidate on which to take a leap of faith.
Trading Plekanec could bring a very nice return. The problem is, would the return be enough to both replace him *and* improve the team? In order to do so, a trade would have to bring the Habs a top centre who can kill penalties, has speed and a great work ethic...PLUS another player that would help fill one of the team's other needs. This is the problem. Just finding the type of player able to replace Plekanec is tough enough. Getting a second significant asset that will help the Habs move forward would be near impossible.
Similarly, letting Plekanec walk as a free agent is problematic because it would effectively leave the team without a top centre. Gomez isn't even worth discussing as an alternative. So, if the Habs let Plekanec go, Gainey will have to hit the market himself to find another centre. Looking at the possible candidates, the selection isn't going to be great. Patrick Marleau is set to become an UFA, but his price will be even greater than Plekanec's. There's Olli Jokinen, who's four years older than Pleks and doesn't have the numbers he's got. Marc Savard is off the market already. And I'm pretty sure bringing in a guy like Antoine Vermette, Matthew Lombardi or Jeff Halpern would be considered a downgrade. So, if Pleks walks in July, there's not much else out there for the Habs to put in his place.
I think Gainey needs to take care of Plekanec sooner, rather than later. A lot of people will argue he's only playing for a contract and will fall off after this season. Some players would do that, but not Plekanec. He never has given anything less than the best he could and he never quits working. In last year's contract season, he was his own harshest critic. Others argue that Plekanec hasn't done much in the playoffs. I'd argue that he hasn't had much of a chance. The Habs have only made three playoff appearances in his time with the team. If you consider last year a complete write-off for the entire franchise, the best chance Plekanec has had to show his stuff in the playoffs was in 2008. That year, he collected nine points in twelve games, getting better as the doomed Flyers' series went on. He and Saku Koivu were the only two effective forwards by the end of that series, and Plekanec scored in each of the last three games. I'd like to see this year's Plekanec in the post-season.
So the questions then become how long, how much and how? If Plekanec continues with the type of play he's showing so far this year, he's going to be worth in the five million dollar range. He's also just 27, so a long-term investment in him, say 5-7 years, is reasonable. The longer the better, in some ways, as a long contract can be front-loaded to offset the cap hit. As for how...it's possible to scrape up some money by somehow getting rid of Georges Laraque. I expect Paul Mara won't be back next year either, which clears up about three million dollars. Adding some of that to Plekanec's current 2.75 will put the Habs in the ballpark. Then, though, there's the concern about re-signing a heart and soul guy like Metropolit and the goalies. If all the savings go to Plekanec, there won't be a whole lot left for those other contracts.
In the end, it's going to have to come down to Gomez or Plekanec. Or Gomez or Halak. Or Gomez or Price. Gomez is going to cost the team a more valuable player one way or another, unless Gainey gets rid of Gomez. So, signing Plekanec while still finding a way to improve this team is going to mean dumping Gomez...even if it's "loaning" him to the KHL or dumping his salary in Hamilton.
Watching Plekanec throw off last season's disappointment in his personal moment of triumph last night told me what I need to know. If he's not a Hab next October, this won't be a team worth watching. Do whatever it takes, Bob.
Posted by J.T. at 8:46 AM