Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Tomas Plekanec doesn't have a middle name. If he did, it might be "práce." In his native tongue, the word means "work," and it's the attribute for which Plekanec is best known. He's earned the accolades honestly. He's the first Canadien on the ice for practice every day, and very often, the last one off. A veteran on a long-term deal, he never has relaxed and let some of the little things slide just because the belly fire is burning a little lower than it used to. It's a rare game in which anyone can say Tomas Plekanec floated for even a shift.
It's no surprise, then, that a coach who demands hard work and discipline should have the greatest regard for a player who never fails to provide both. Jacques Martin, if he admires any player, admires Plekanec, and as a result he relies heavily on his number-one centreman. If he needs someone to take a crucial faceoff, he calls Plekanec. When the Habs are facing a two-man disadvantage, Plekanec gets the nod. Need someone to hold a one-goal lead with a minute to go? Get Plekanec. Short a point man on the PP? Send out #14. Got a slumping winger? Stick him on Plekanec's line. It's got to be a nice feeling for Plekanec to be as important a player as he is. The question is whether it's good for him as a player to be wearing so many helmets.
There's no question Plekanec is used in more situations than any other number-one centre in the league. Two years ago, Plekanec took 35.1% of the team's faceoffs. Only Sidney Crosby and Paul Stastny took more. Last year, he was fifth in the league, taking 35.5% of the Habs' draws.
In 2009-10, he played 2:44 shorthanded, good for 14th among all NHL forwards. Nobody who played more time shorthanded was a first-line player. Plekanec got 20 minutes of icetime and 27 shifts a game, by far more than any of the players ahead of him on the PK. Last year showed a similar pattern. He was on the ice for just over 20 minutes a game, with an average of 26 shifts, again, significantly more than the 14 guys above him in shorthanded ice time. Plekanec also played an average of 2:45 a night on the PP over the last two years. Now, with the absence of an established partner for P.K.Subban on the point during the man advantage, Plekanec's doing that job as well. (Whether that's a wise decision is up for debate.)Add to the mix that he's extremely durable for a smaller player, and it means he's taking on that kind of workload for about 80 games a year.
There's a perception that Plekanec, under Martin, is used too much. Fans believe he wears down as the year wears on and becomes less effective. The numbers tend to support that theory. Two years ago, Plekanec played all 82 games. In the first half of the year, he put up 44 points (8g, 36a). In the second half, his totals dropped to just 26 points (17g, 9a). It's possible the Olympics played a role in tiring Plekanec down the stretch, but likely that a nagging hip injury which he didn't take time off to rest was a bigger factor. Last season, Plekanec played 40 games (missed one with the flu) in the first half of the year and 37 (lost four games with a knee injury) in the second half. In the first 40 games, he had 32 points (12g, 20a). In the last 37, his points total dropped to 25 (10g, 15a). The drop wasn't as noticable last year as it was the year before, but it's interesting to note that the knee injury, which forced him to take time off to rest, came in the second half of the year, which ironically may have helped give him a second wind. Also, in the first half, usually Plekanec's most productive time, he played long stretches with a slumping Andrei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn went through a stretch of 8 points in 17 games, which, for a guy like Plekanec who depends on his finishers for points, hurt his totals.
In the last two years, Plekanec's best months have been at the beginning of the season. In 2009-10, he had 13 points in 14 games for October, 12 points in 12 November games and 21 points in 17 games through December. In contrast, his worst months were January, in which he put up 8 points in 13 games and March, when he had just 8 points over 14 games. Similarly, last year, his best months were October and November, in which he put up a total of 23 points in as many games. His worst months came in December (8 points in 15 games) and March (6 points in 11 games).
At some point, something's got to give. Plekanec, as the first-line centre, plays the majority of his even-strength ice time against the other team's best defencemen. He sees more of Chara, Weber, Pronger and Phaneuf than anybody else who plays similar time on the PK. So, at even strength, he's strongly defended by the opposition. On the PK, he's defending the other team's best forwards. He ends up being the shadow on guys like Crosby, Backstrom and Giroux more than most other first-line centremen. He's very good at all those things, of course, but he needs help. He's getting older, he's not a huge body and the constant grind of facing the other team's best players is inevitably wearying. The Canadiens need to do what they can to ensure their best centre is fresh for the stretch drive and playoffs.
Pierre Gauthier showed an awareness of that when he claimed Blair Betts off waivers. Betts kills more penalties than Plekanec, and he's able to take important faceoffs. Unfortunately, he came from Philly with a return-to-sender label on his medical chart. So now, unless Gauthier can find another answer somewhere, Plekanec is left with little support. Andreas Engqvist shows promise as a faceoff man and defensive player, but he's very green. Scott Gomez can kill penalties and take faceoffs, but his general ineffectiveness on many nights means he usually gets less ice time than Plekanec. Lars Eller and David Desharnais, like Engqvist, have potential but are still pretty raw.
So it comes down to Jacques Martin. He has to make the decision to trust his young players more and give them some of the responsibility he unloads onto Plekanec. They have to learn sometime. Scott Gomez has vowed to be a better player this year. He needs a chance to prove that in important situations. However he does it, Martin must find a way to give Plekanec some easier minutes. That's not to say he shouldn't play 23 minutes in a vital game against a division opponent. He should naturally be used to best advantage in a game like that. There's no need, though, to start him on every PK and take half the faceoffs in a low-stress game against the Islanders or Blue Jackets. In the first two games this year, injuries have meant Plekanec has played an average of 23 minutes a game, with 4:22 of that on the PK. It's an unsustainable pace for an entire season, so when the lineup is intact, Martin has to choose to use Plekanec more wisely.
It's a tough call for a coach in a competitive league like the NHL, in which two points could mean the difference between having home ice advantage in the playoffs or not, or even between making the playoffs or not. The wise coach, however, would recognize the fact that even the hardest-working body will tire eventually, and if eventually comes during the playoffs, that's not a good thing.
A guy whose middle name might as well be "work" won't let up on himself when he's asked to perform. So, in the end, his coach needs to take responsibility for making his life a little easier. It could be that prudence now will produce a better-functioning Plekanec when it really matters.
Posted by J.T. at 2:06 AM