You can bet nobody is as happy as Tomas Plekanec at the Canadiens' signing of Jeff Halpern yesterday. Halpern is something the Canadiens haven't had in quite a while: a real, true-blue defensive specialist. In the last several years, the guys the Habs have used to fill that role in the bottom six have been former goal scorers on the downside, or aging vets lacking at least one of the tools needed to be an ideal shut-down player.
Halpern fills a perfect niche for the Canadiens. He's 34, so not too old. He's a PK specialist, and a right-handed centre with a bit of size. Best of all, he wins faceoffs. In the last five NHL seasons, he's consistently above 51% on the draw, which would make him the Habs' best centreman in that department. That should make a big difference to the Canadiens' game. Puck possession starts with the faceoff, and the Habs lost 50.3% of theirs last season. Plekanec, in particular, didn't have a great year in the faceoff circle, finishing with only a 49% win rate. That's a tough stat, because he took the majority of the team's draws...1615 of them, which placed him third in the league behind Sidney Crosby and Paul Stastny. A guy who takes that many faceoffs needs to have a better percentage on the draw if the team is to be successful in the puck possession game. Plekanec is capable of better; he was at 51% in 2008-09, but it's not his specialty. Having a guy like Halpern, with a better chance of winning big draws, gives the puck to the Canadiens more often. And, as they say, you can't score if you don't have the puck, it's also true you score more often if you *do* have the puck. That's good for the offensively-talented guys like Plekanec who benefit when they have more scoring chances.
The addition of Halpern also gives Plekanec a break on the defensive side of the game. Last season, Plekanec played an average of 2:44 a game on the PK, versus his 2:38 on the PP. Part of that is because the Canadiens as a team were shorthanded and on the power play an even 148 times. Ideally, though, Plekanec should get more time on the PP and at even strength so he can really focus on scoring goals. Killing penalties is hard work and a guy who does it several times a night will feel it later in the year. It's no coincidence that Plekanec's rate of production began to drop after the Olympic break. He had 21 points in 17 games in December when he was fresh. In March and April, he had just 10 points in 19 games. He also took 14 minutes of penalties in the 19 games post-Olympics, as compared with just 10 PIM in 26 games over October and November. Tired players take more hooking and holding calls than fresh ones. With Halpern in the lineup, Plekanec should spend less time on the PK this season, which will help him keep his legs for the stretch run.
Halpern, by winning faceoffs in the defensive zone, should also help cut down on the number of dumb penalties the Habs take in the first place. If they're in possession of the puck and moving it out of their zone efficiently off the draw, there's less running around and taking desperate tripping, hooking or interference penalties.
Halpern's signing, especially at the reported $600-thousand is a great deal for the Habs. He's got a good reputation for hard work and leadership in the dressing room, which fits with the attitude the team developed in the playoffs. His pay is very cap-friendly and leaves that extra bit of money for the possible acquisition of some deadline playoff help if needed. He can also use his right-handed shot on the PP, like Glen Metropolit did last year, to pot a few goals now and then.
The only possible drawback is the message it sends to the kids in the organization that the big team is set already. It doesn't leave an easy opening for a guy like White, Pacioretty, Desharnais or Maxwell to grab a roster spot. On the other hand, if one of those guys has such a great camp that it's impossible to cut him, Halpern outranks Mathieu Darche on the depth chart. The kids don't have to beat Halpern. They have to beat out Darche, which is still possible for them to do.
There are a lot of reasons for fans to be pleased with the Halpern signing. If he stays healthy, he's going to fix a couple of cracks in last year's lineup. Sometimes, the small things are the things that really make a difference in the big picture. The players know that, and we can assume that's why Tomas Plekanec should be smiling today.