Guess what I noticed today? Jonathan Toews, whose praises pundits were singing from the mountaintops as perhaps the best all-round player in the NHL during the first three rounds of the playoffs, has no goals against the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. He has two assists, and he's a minus four. He has two assists more than Tomas Plekanec had in a five-game series against the Flyers, in three of which NOBODY on his team had a point. The funny thing is, though, Chicago fans aren't ready to dump Toews or call him names because of it. Sure, he's struggling against Philly. Sometimes good players struggle when they're being checked hard. But the Chicago fans are saying, "Hey, we have faith he'll come through."
As Plekanec slides closer to unrestricted free agency, there are a lot of Habs fans who think it's better to let him walk. They're saying he'll be asking for too much money to justify his playoff points totals, even though he finished 26th in the league in points during the season. The people who dump on him for not lighting up the Flyers forget that without his 70 points this year, the Habs wouldn't have been in the playoffs in the first place. The one thing the "let him walk" camp doesn't have a handle on is who will replace him?
Let's look at what Plekanec does for the Canadiens. As mentioned, he's a top-thirty scorer in the league. He works very hard on every shift. He handles the first wave of the PK and, in fact, is among the top ten in NHL forwards in shorthanded ice time. He also helps out on the PP, takes a lot of important faceoffs and plays a consistent twenty minutes a night.
If the Habs were to replace him, they have to examine one of three options. They need to either promote from within, pull someone off the free-agent market or make a trade. At the moment, there is no centreman in Hamilton who's able to fill all the roles Plekanec fills for the Canadiens. Ben Maxwell has played twenty regular season games and has scored no points. David Desharnais might crack the roster one day, but he will not step into Plekanec's spot in October and put up 70 points. Louis Leblanc is three years away, and nobody even knows if he'll fulfill his promise as a future NHLer. So, internal promotion is not an option at this time.
A quick examination of the free agent market shows exactly ONE centre better than Plekanec. Patrick Marleau can play the position and he can put up points. He will also be much more expensive than Plekanec, so he's not an option for the Canadiens. After Marleau, the next tier of centre available is...Tomas Plekanec. And after Pleks, you get into 40-50 point guys like Matthew Lombardi or Matt Cullen, or unpredictable head cases like Olli Jokinen, who may or may not ever have another good year. The guys below Plekanec in the pecking order may come cheaper, but it's debatable how much cheaper they'd be, and the trade-off in points, PK work and attitude have to be considered in the cost. I look at it this way: If the Canadiens were looking to pull in the best centre on the market they could likely afford...assuming they had no ties to any of them...they'd pick Tomas Plekanec.
The trade option is interesting as well. Looking at what the Habs have to offer in exchange, we see one of the two goalies, a couple of aging defencemen, an underperforming forward or two and a gigantic, overinflated contract. Of the bait available, the goalies are the best of the lot. They're both young, relatively cheap and talented. There are a lot of teams in need of quality goaltending. The only problem is, teams tend to get cheap when it comes to hiring a young goalie.
In the grand scheme of things, a GM wants to improve his team when he makes a trade, not make a horizontal move. In that case, Gauthier should be able to call up another GM and say, "Hi, we want your 80-point centre. What would it take?" Right now, I can't think of anything the Habs have to offer that would pry that kind of player away from a team. To put a face on it, you're talking an Eric Staal type.
If we can admit the Habs don't have the trade bait to bring in a better centre than Plekanec, they're in a horizontal move position, in attempting to acquire someone just "as good" as him. In that case, the team would have spent the few trade assets it has in order to replace a player instead of using them to fill another need. Plekanec is available for just money. If he's signed, Gauthier can trade to improve the defence, toughen up the bottom six or maybe bring in a top-line winger who can work with Pleks or Gomez.
People blame Plekanec for not being a "true" number-one centre. Too small, everyone says. Well, the little guy ended up in the top-thirty NHL scorers this year, which, if thirty NHL teams have a top line, means he's right up there with other teams' best players. He'll deserve a raise this year, and, if it weren't for the wretched Gomez contract, it wouldn't be an issue. My concern is Gomez is getting the number-one centre money, but Pleks is putting up the better numbers. That's an imbalance that's not going to work in the long-term. Nobody can make more money than Gomez under the cap, so nobody better than him is going to fill in that "true" number-one centre role. Except, maybe, Tomas Plekanec.
The Canadiens need to fill the number-two centre position this summer, one way or another. If it's not with Plekanec, it'll have to be a downgrade because the team can't afford to get anyone better. Looking at the team that barely scraped into the playoffs this year, even with Plekanec's 70 points in the lineup, the thought of what a downgrade down the middle will really mean is scary. Plekanec needs to be signed if the Habs are even going to maintain the level of play we saw this year. A four-year deal at 4.5 million per isn't unreasonable for what he brings, and it's still relatively tradeable if it doesn't work out.
The funny thing is, as the 2009-10 season is about to finally grind to a halt, we can look back objectively and judge how players performed this year, in the big picture. Guess who finished two points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks captain? Not that Plekanec is ever going to be the same kind of player as Jonathan Toews, but both of them have proven there's value in being multi-dimensional. And sometimes, what a player does isn't counted in points. It's nice that Blackhawks fans recognize that.