Monday, October 26, 2009

Making the Case For Plekanec

There are a lot of very good reasons why an NHL general manager would prefer to negotiate contracts after the season is over. Contract talks during the season can be distracting for the player involved. They can also create divisions in the room if one player is settling a contract while others are still wondering about their own futures. Then there's the effect on the player's performance. Some players work harder when next year's money is at stake. Others might look like they deserve a new deal for half a season, then collapse and show another side of their play later in the year. I've never really had a big problem with Bob Gainey's decision to (mostly) negotiate player contracts at season's end, because I could understand his reasons.

However, with all due respect to Gainey, none of those reasons apply to Tomas Plekanec. He is the type of player more likely to be distracted if he feels management isn't confident in him, and if his future isn't secure. In the case of the other players in the room, everyone of distinction on the team, with the exceptions of newcomers and pending UFAs Paul Mara and Glen Metropolit, is signed long-term already. And effort has never been Plekanec's issue. He's one of the hardest-working players on the team and has been since his rookie season. Even when he struggled to put numbers up last year (although, 20 goals isn't too shabby for an off-year) he worked hard defensively and on the PK.

Of course, it's a bit early to say Plekanec is back from last year's rough season. But after eleven games, he's maintaining nearly a point-per-game pace with the same great speed and smarts he's always had and a little added sandpaper he hasn't. He's doing all this with no stability on his wings or much help from the mixed bag of linemates with which he's played so far this year. The biggest difference between Plekanec's game last year and his improvement this year is confidence. Instead of peeling off when he crosses the opposing blueline, he's making a move and cutting to the net. That's confidence. Instead of dumping the puck in, he's carrying it and making slick passes to his linemates. That's confidence too. So is his willingness to knock people down on the boards and behind the net to make sure he comes out with the puck.

It's in Bob Gainey's and the Canadiens' best interest to keep Plekanec and to keep him producing with confidence. Most of the budget for forwards is tied up for the foreseeable future, barring a trade, with Gionta, Gomez, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn accounting for more than 21-million dollars between them. Add in the 14.5 of the top-three defencemen and there's not a whole lot of space left to give many raises or buy any premium free agents to fill empty slots.

Second-line centres who produce sixty or more points a season, are strong on faceoffs and can play well defensively and on special teams don't grow on trees and when you find one, it's costly to obtain him. A trade for one would require a combination of picks, good prospects and roster players, and a nice salary payout. Signing one as a free agent would cost in the four-million dollar per annum range. And that's assuming there's a suitable player available with whom a team is willing to part, or who's willing to sign in Montreal. It's also assuming any replacement for Plekanec would fit in personality-wise on a team that's coming together pretty nicely right now. Looking within the organization itself, we see Ben Maxwell and David Desharnais showing some flashes of ability, but hoping either one of them can step into the second-line slot and produce solid numbers next season is a pipe dream. In short, finding another centre to fill Plekanec's slot will be either costly in terms of assets, expensive or both. IF there's one to be found at all. You're just not going to find a player who does all Plekanec does for less.

In Plekanec, Gainey has a young, homegrown player who's developed far beyond original expectations and seems happy to play in Montreal. He's liked by his teammates and isn't the kind of player who'll end up featuring in salacious rumours or turning up drunk in internet photos. His on-ice play is solid in all zones, he's offensively creative, defensively responsible and he works hard every game and every practice. He's the kind of player people can respect. Best of all, he's already a Hab. All Gainey has to do to ensure the relationship continues is make an exception to his off-season negotiation philosophy and make Plekanec a reasonable three-or-four year extension when the window for doing so opens in January.

The benefits of signing him are many. Plekanec would be rewarded for his hard work, dedication and on-ice results, and feel wanted and respected by the team. He said last summer when his arbitration date loomed that he wanted to be paid well, of course, but that it was more important to him to feel respected. A contract extension would be a sign of good faith on Gainey's part, and a boost to the player's confidence. It's also an opportunity for the GM to retain a valuable asset by making Plekanec an honest offer, before his numbers and his value climb out of the reach of a cap-strapped team like Montreal.

The only inherent risk in extending Plekanec in January is that his play could drop off after he signs and it'll turn out he isn't worth the money. I think that's a risk Gainey has to take. Sometimes you have to weigh the options and gamble a bit, and considering the individual involved, there's a better-than-even chance Plekanec will flourish, not regress, with a new deal. The odds are much, much greater that Gainey will end up getting burned by trying to find someone else to take Pleks' place. And, considering the price the GM is paying for a guy like Gomez, it seems he's not adverse to the odd gamble.

What it comes down to is the Habs need Plekanec more than Plekanec needs the Habs. He wants respect and security and I think he's done enough for the team to merit that before it's too late. Git 'er done, Bob.


DB said...

Pleks play this year even got the attention of the Leaf-centric Hockey Central host Darren Mallard today. He said Pleks has been playing great. Must say I agree with him and you. The sooner Gainey resigns Pleks the better.

If Pleks resigns for $1 M to $1.5 M more next year it will be interesting to see how Gainey handles the salary cap. He could let Mara and Metro go and replace them with slightly cheaper players from the Bulldogs. But he still has to deal with the players of non-distinction who are RFAs at the end of the year. This includes Latendresse, Yappy-erre, Chipchura, Stewart, D'Agostini, maybe Sergei, Price and that other goalie of non-distinction Halak.

Howard said...

JT, I agree with you wholeheartedly! Plekanec has been a constant beacon on a line dimmed with a revolving door of linemates, save Kotstitsyn who has been playing like he's in a Newfoundland fog all year. Ironically, I think Pleks best work has come with Mike Cammalleri which is not surprising because both share similar drive. I think Pleks has the work ethic to not be distracted by negotiations for a contract extension. Gainey was playing his cards close to the vest this summer and I'm glad they didn't go to arbitration because that can be counterproductive for both parties. I think Gainey could have had Streit as well in mid season for a hometown discount and dare I say it "the traitor" too. Waiting until Jul 1 to start negotiating will not get er done!

Raphaƫl P. said...

I would like to add one or two observations on Plek

I agree with you that the Habs need Plek more than he needs them. I also agree with you that a solid 2 line center is a hard find (especially one that's content in being second).

That said, three elements come attenuate IMHO these factors and explain Gainey's stance.

First off, confidence comes and goes, if there's one thing I've noticed about Plek is that his confidence dictates his game. As proof look no further than this season, regardless of who his line mates are, Plek's numbers remain good. Temperamental players are not the easiest to judge and doing so while such a player is hot or cold is not IMHO a smart move.

Second factor I would take into consideration is the fact that Plek's value, because of his "hotness", is really high. One aspect of running a successful hockey concession is the financial aspect. Right now, business-wise it would make little sens for the canadiens to commit when Plek's value is probably at it's maximum. Waiting for an inevitable slump or for the overall average to come out (end of season) makes much more sens. Especially for a player that has not put out consistent numbers (if Kovalev for example would always sign his contracts in the beginning of his seasons, he would be much poorer :P).

The third aspect I would consider is that because of Gainey's stance on contract signing during the season, Plek will not be overly affected by a lack of contract. Knowing that that's how Gainey treats everyone, Plek will not feel singled out or unappreciated. Braking this rule might* (and that's a big might) be worth it for Plek but it would be detrimental to other players in the future. Only in the case of franchise players would an exception to such a rule be considered reasonable by other players and their agents IMHO.

Anyway my 3 cents,


~czechtacular said...

This. All of it. Times a million.

J.T. said...

@DB: I suspect it'd be more along the lines of trading Hammer's contract if it comes to cutting salary. He's playing well this year, but O'Byrne, if he keeps developing, will need a real spot. Saving Hamrlik's 5.5 million could help on both fronts. I'd actually keep Mara if possible. And none of the RFAs, with the possible exception of Halak and Price (if he catches fire big-time) deserve much of a raise.

@Raphael: To your three points, respectfully: First, I've never seen Pleks as being temperamental in the way that a guy like Kovalev is. He needs confidence, yes, but so do most players...see Ryder, Michael. I think he's never had much support from management or the coaching staff in helping him maintain his confidence. Carbo pretty much left him on his own to sort out his own game, and you didn't see Gainey taking him for walks to talk about his issues. If Martin helps him stay focussed, he's not going to drop off in play because his work ethic has never been an issue.

Second, Pleks can't legally be extended until January. If he's still burning things up by then, you have to consider the idea that based on an entire season two years ago, and another half-year this year, that last season's slump might have been the fluke...not the good play we're seeing now. If that's so, his value will continue to increase.

Third, he's not a franchise player, but neither was Saku Koivu, and Gainey did make an exception in his case. I know Koivu was the captain, but the reason for the mid-season signing was to show respect for the player. That's all Plekanec is asking for, and considering the small number of UFAs on the team this year, I think an exception can be made in his case.

DB said...

I suspect some of the RFAs will get big raises (double current salary) because of the threat of salary arbitration. Except for Price and Sergei, all of the RFAs are eligible for salary arbitration next year.

saskhab said...

No way. Wait until June.

Granted,I haven't watched the Habs at all since Game 2 vs. Buffalo (been on vacation) but simple logic must be adhered to.

1. The Habs have both a structural problem of lack of centre depth (and losing Plex wouldn't help) but also lack of centre size. We need to see how this team can perform for a full year plus playoffs to justify dishing out a long term deal to another quality, but undersized pivot.

2. We don't know what the cap will be next year. Therefore we don't know what Plekanec's market value really is.

3. Price and Halak are RFA's. We know for sure that goaltending will cost us more than $3m against the cap next year as a result.

4. Let this team play and the season to unfold before we start making even more long term commitments. I think I said this one before already.

spyro367 said...

Indeed plekanec is a necessary player for a team like the Habs

Great read, keep up the good work!