Sunday, August 7, 2011

Letting Go

My grandfather always used to say a man can be a Jack of all trades, but he'd be a master of none. I look at Tomas Plekanec and I see my grandfather's wisdom.

I should preface this argument with the statement that I have always been a big Plekanec fan. I own not only a game-worn sweater, but also a game-worn turtleneck. (Don't ask me how I got it.) I am a fan of Plekanec's because he's able to do everything well. He can kill a penalty like Carbonneau, score a PP goal like Lemieux, work like a stevadore and bring as much passion to a game as the kid in "King Leary." He does a little bit of everything well, and does it with heart and soul.

The problem, though, is that Plekanec has to be a number-one centre. While it's helpful to be pretty good at lots of things, a number-one centre has to be GREAT at one thing. He's got to score. He's got to be the guy everyone looks to to pound in the winning goal in OT; the guy who can rally a team down by two; the guy who makes the PP potent. Tomas Plekanec can do those things, but he tempers that ability with his desire to prevent goals against his team. He is the consumate two-way centreman.

Every winning team needs a guy like Plekanec, who can anchor an excellent second or third line with his all-round skill. A player like that works best in a supporting role, backing up the offensive-minded top-line centreman. In the case of the Canadiens, Plekanec, by default, has to be that top guy, but he's not allowed to play a purely offensive role. Most teams don't have their top centre killing more penalties than any other forward. The Canadiens do, because Plekanec's the best PK guy on the team and the Habs take a lot of penalties. In the end, that means Plekanec spends a lot of time in defensive situations, which, in turn, means his scoring opportunities are reduced. And 57 points from your number-one centre just isn't good enough for an offensively challenged team.

It appears the Canadiens forward lines are pretty much set for the new season. With no significant changes down the middle, it's up to the coaching staff to change Plekanec's role. As hard as it may be to assign PK duties to a player who's not quite as good defensively, Jacques Martin needs to allow his top-line players to focus on scoring goals.

Erik Cole should help with this. He tends to open space for his linemates and is good at getting the puck into the offensive zone. He also draws a lot of penalties, which will help keep his line on the attack. The other centres can help too. Lars Eller was starting to get the hang of being an NHL player at the end of last season, and if he turns out to be a threat on the attack, the opponent will have to spread defensive coverage more thinly. Scott Gomez can't possibly be worse than last year, but if he's just as bad offensively, he can take on some of Plekanec's defensive assignments. More than one guy has managed to resurrect a flagging career by re-inventing himself as a shut-down player.

While the other forwards can help, Martin will have to take the biggest role in making Plekanec a more productive offensive player. Plekanec is coachable because does what he's told. He's proven he's willing to sacrifice personal numbers when he's asked to focus on a defensive role instead. It's all about the team for him. Martin has to explain that even though Plekanec prides himself on his two-way play, the lack of scoring hurts the team. Then...the hardest part of all...Martin needs to actually loosen the reins and let Plekanec and his linemates loose on offence. He can't give in to the temptation to have them kill penalties or take defensive shadow assignments just because it's safer.

Plekanec has the skill and speed to be the guy other teams try to shut down, rather than the other way around. He just needs the freedom to be able to do it. That freedom has to come from the coach, because, while it's nice to have a guy who's a jack of all trades, it's great to have one who's the master of a skill his team needs badly.


Anonymous said...

Disagree. Pleks is a great all around player and he needs to stay that way. We are lucky to have him on the team. The problem is the team needs to find another center to be the offensive center. Unfortunately Gomez has been a HUGE flop which means Pleks has to do everything.

Raj said...

JT, as much as I would like to see Pleks focus more on offense, I don't think it's going to happen, not this season.

First, Pleks isn't a physically imposing player like a Jonathan Toews or a Mike Richards (even though he's about the same size as the latter). I can't help feeling a #1 center has to have a physical attributes to his game, unless he's a generational talent like Crosby. The prototypes would be Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf. The playoffs showed us the limitations of a Henrik Sedin (whp's bigger than Pleks).

Second, even if Pleks had the physique, I don't think Martin would relieve him of his defensive responsibilities because right now he's all we've got. Martin knows 3-2 wins are more likely to occur than 6-5 or 5-4 wins. If Desharnais or Eller pick up the slack defensively -- I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for Gomez to -- then perhaps Pleks could be unleashed offensively. Yes, Cole will help. Cammy's bound to have a better season than he did last year. Both will boost Pleks' numbers. But I see an incremental improvement, rather than a radical one -- and I feel Pleks will still be our #1 PK forward for the foreseeable future.

Daniel said...

My grandfather used to say : "a bird who is aware of the trees flies better into the clouds and can go higher"

Tharsan said...

I agree with anonymous. Pleks is great but he wouldn't be a high flying offensive guy even if the reins were loosened. He may kill a penalty like Carbonneau but he doesn't quite score on the PP like Lemieux (3 goals last year). He's best the way he is; a 60 to 70 point guy who creates his offense through good defense. Nothing in his past suggests otherwise. Look at his Hamilton stats or his Czech stats.

AndyF said...

Nope, diagree. Pleky is a Steve Yzerman-type player. Great all-round. The team needs him this way. He may want to break into bigger bucks by being more selfish, but that's not what the Habs need from him.

Thanks for the article!

patience is a virtue said...

Agree with most other posters and Tharsen and AndyF in particular. Our Stevie-Y just gets better and better all around.

There are only about 10 elite first line scoring centremen of the mold so many fans pine for. I am more than happy with Pleks as he is.

If Gomez can bounce back and Eller and DD continue to develop, we will be very strong up the middle indeed.

Anonymous said...

This makes almost no sense! First off the best centres in the game like Joe Thornton, Henrik Sedin and Ryan Getzlaf are all play makers which is usually the standard for a number 1 centre. Second some of the best centres in the game kill penalties, including Crosby and Datsyuk. Third the habs don't need 1 line to carry them, they need multiple lines to chip in. They are one of the best defensive teams in the league because everyone including Pleks does their job at both sides of the ice! Having Pleks play well at both sides of the ice is if anything a major bonus and although he wont put up 90 pts he can still easily put up 70 points this year and still be defensively responsible.

beaverislandguy said...

i agree with the writer. Plekanec is the man. Jack of all trades has always been more useful than a master at one. Especially on a team, not two years ago, was gutted and turned into the potential powerhouse it could be. I can't count the number of times last season, where Plekanec, while killing a penalty forced a breakaway the other way. Usually he was foiled, but it brought me to my feet each time, hoping for more positive result. He sets the pace. It is his heart, grit and determination - with other players now try to keep up and blossom with their inherent capabilities (Gomez excluded) This work ethic has always made the Canadiens a franchise to be reckoned with.

Anonymous said...

Plekanec is actually the prototypical habs' draft choice - we seem, organizationally, to covet players with this 'all-around' dimension, even if it means that we don't get guys who are outstanding in any specific facet of the game. But I'm with those who deny that this is a problem. Think of Plekanec as a Datsyuk-type. The Red Wings have been the best team of their era by developing players with *exactly* this profile. So the Habs are on the right track.

dusty said...

Krejci is a Plekanec type player and a number one center on a Cup winner. The difference between playing in the defensive or offensive zone when Pleks faces Krejci is Lucic and Horton. Cammalleri and whoever is on the left wing at the time just can't cut it. Pleky is just fine. Switch teams and Krejci is playing defense not Plekanec.

The days of the big number one center are all but over and waiting for such a guy is a waste of time. Habs had Beliveau in a six team league not a 30 team league. Today 30 teams can boast only about five or so top centers and the Pens have two of them.

Clearly it would be nice to have Crosby, Toews, Gezlaf or Malkin (don't want Thornton) but the Habs best bet is to get some strong wingers to cycle and wear down the other teams D for a change. Erik Cole has a few good years left and is a good start. Just need one more.