Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Whatever It Takes


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.

10 comments:

JoshSS said...

Amen.

DB said...

I think I know what Bob wants for Christmas - an increase of a million or two in next year's salary cap. If it stays flat or goes down a bit then Bob will have some really tough decisions to make in order to get the space to resign Pleks. As it is now Pleks is looking at a salary of at least $5 M per year.

Getting rid of Mara and Laraque will create at most $2 M in cap space that can be spent on Pleks. The other $1.1 M of their cap hit is needed to cover the salaries of their replacements, say Carle at $600 K and Stewart at $500 K.

Buying out Laraque next year or losing him on recallable waivers are not options the Habs should pursue. Next year's cap space is too precious to waste on Laraque. Demoting him to the minors for the duration of his contract and offering him an inducement to retire (say lining up a job in the media and offering to make a $2 M donation to his charitable foundation) are the only viable options. I can't see anyone trading for him.

Don't get me started on Gomez. It was a bad trade which looks even worse now because of the cap issues. Either Gomez needs to address his demons like Pleks did or Gainey is going to have to ask the Molson's to have the most expensive minor league hockey player in history.

danedmunds said...

gomez is going to cripple this franchise

Anonymous said...

Agreed 100%. I've loved him from day 1, and I'm so happy that the rest of the world is now starting to see his value.

Raphaƫl said...

Great read, as always.

However what agent in their right mind would accept to initiate negotiations now? I see very little to be gained from starting now, unless the players requests it. Plekanec might have great work ethic and love the team but I think he's a hockey player first and foremost and location, for him, is not an issue...

Anyway that's my completely uneducated guess on the matter.

Andrew Berkshire said...

I have a feeling it's going to be Hamrlik who's moved to make space. His play has been good enough that many teams will be willing to take on his salary. If Hamrlik, BGL and Mara leave we have plenty of room for Pleks, Price and Metro plus the rest. That's if the cap goes down anyway.

Also I'm just going to say it, Plekanec this year is better than Kovalev in 07-08. He just is. He's more effective overall. He's the best player on this team until Markov gets completely up to speed, and even then if Plekanec keeps this up it might be a toss up.

pierre said...

I think we need a solid quartet of skilled forwards signed long term in Montreal in order to secure a good offensive punch to our team from our top two lines from year to year.

We already have 3 adding Plek would make it 4..... 2 winger + 2 centers.... perfect.

Plek-Cammalleri and Gomez-Gionta are both hight caliber offensive duos, adding any skillfull wingers to them on any given years is bound to give us solid top two lines offensive contribution year after year.

If signing Plek is a no brainer, signing Bergeron long term is even more of a given to me.

As I like to see it Markov and Bergeron will be the golden PP pair in the NHL for many years to come..... Bob would be insaine not to secure a PP excellence to his team for years into the futur if he could and now he can...... re-signing Bergeron this year along with Markov next season to long term contracts would do just that.

Securing solid top two lines offensive contribution with a quartet of long term signings + securing PP excellence with a pair of long term signings would go a long way in making this team a fun team to watch long into the futur..... add solid goaltending to the mix and you get yourself a solid core around which pretty much everything else could gravitate and be successfull while with us.

Harry said...

This year he is much more confident and tough,not drop the gloves,but he took a cross check in the face from that moron Sutton (no call by the way) and was even more determined to play and score ( I think he will need to see the dentist also).
I also agree with Andrew who says that Hammer may be the best to trade,he has played very well and it will be a shame to loose him but we could get a lot done with the extra money.
Actually the Team 990 said the other day that there is a team interested in BGL...what are we waiting for ?
Cautious Bob drives me nuts at times,I respect him but he is passe as a GM in this changing hockey world.
J.T. -Hope you and yours have a great Christmas and keep the blogs coming (please )

Peter James said...

If Bob is any kind of a GM he`s on the phone to Philly trying to pry Carter away for Pleks and Halak.
If that doesn`t work out then i`d like to see Bob trade Pleks for picks, Halak also unless he gets offers he can`t resist other then Carter.
Bob should also look at the return on what he might get for Price if he were to put him on the market.
The Montreal Canadiens are in need of a few solid BIG forwards that can score. Carter would be a good start.
Now, before anyone goes accusing me of being high, so what, I can still have an opinion : )

x-ine said...

Could not agree more. I love Plekanec. I may also be *in love* with him because he is so adorable with his turtleneck.

Seriously though, if the Habs do not do all in their power to keep this guy, I will completely and utterly lose my shit.