In a year for the Canadiens that eventually met with disappointment, one of the few bright spots was the emergence of Tomas Plekanec. And like the team he plays for, his season would be full of highs and low’s, but unlike the team, his season would be remembered as an unqualified success.
It certainly didn’t start that way.
At this time last year, Canadiens general manager, Bob Gainey, was busy scouring the free agent market. One of his primary objectives was the acquisition of a second line center to play behind Saku Koivu and play alongside Alexei Kovalev, and newly acquired Sergei Samsonov.
Unfortunately, as training camp began, Gainey found himself without the center he was looking for. Looking at an in house solution Gainey and head coach Guy Carbonneau settled on a second year player, Tomas Plekanec.
There were questions immediately, raised by both media and fans alike. Would this NHL sophomore be up to task? Both his size and playmaking skills were brought into question, as well as his lack of experience. Would a player who scored only 29 points the year before be a worthy centre for the scoring tandem of Kovalev and Samsonov? The fact that Plekanec was paid the league minimum $450,000, while his two line mates earned a combined $8 million, did little to quell the whispers that he was ill equipped to handle the duty of being their center man.
The first ten games did little to calm the fears of the doubters. Plekanec was only able to contribute two assists and the second line overall only had 7 goals and 14 assists combined. This was not exactly the result the Canadiens were looking for. And whether fair or not, the majority of the blame fell on Plekanec’s shoulders, while the Canadiens searched for other solutions to ignite the scoring punch of Kovalev and Samsonov.
Looking back later on in the season, Plekanec admitted to feeling the pressure of playing between Kovalev and Samsonov. Perhaps, he had been trying to hard to adjust to their game, all the while subjugating his own skills. And somewhere along the way, Tomas Plekanec lost himself as a player.
In an effort to try and shake things up, Carbonneau demoted him from the second to the fourth line. But Plekanec’s production did not improve as hoped and after 35 games he had scored only 3 goals and added eight assists.
However, despite the disappointing play of Plekanec, the Canadiens were thriving, going into their game on December 23rd against the Bruins. After 38 games they were sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 49 points, and trailing first place Buffalo by ten points they seemed poised to take a run on the Sabres. That night however, saw an end to the Habs five game winning streak and marked a turning point in their season.
It also marked the turning point for Tomas Plekanec.
As the team sank into a prolonged slump that saw them tumble down the standings, Plekanec stepped up his play, and became what the Canadiens had hoped he would be and more.
In the midst of the team’s dreadful January, Plekanec was named the team’s player of the month, with 12 points in the teams 12 games. And as Plekanec emerged as the team’s best player during the lean months of January and February, his role expanded.
Having now gained the trust of coach Carbonneau, due to his work ethic, and commitment in both the offensive and defensive zones, Plekanec found himself taking critical face-offs, killing penalties, and with increased power play time. This added responsibility saw Pleckanec thrive. All the while, he endured, without complaint, a steady stream of wingers (at least twelve), as Carbonneau searched for a winning combination during these desperate times.
The one constant during this long slump was the play of Plekanec, who after his horrible start contributed 41 points in the Habs last 43 games of the season. Considering that the higher paid tandem of Kovalev and Samsonov finished with 47 and 26 points for the entire season respectfully, one can see how important Plekanec had become to the team.
At the end of the year Plekanec seemed to finally find a set of wingers after a long and exhaustive search and in tandem with Chris Higgins and Andrei Kostitsyn, they accounted for the Habs top line in the waning weeks of the season.
Unfortunately, as everyone now knows it wasn’t enough and the Canadiens missed qualifying for the playoffs by two points. However, the one player singled out by both Carbonneau and Gainey for praise was Plekanec.
Coach Carbonneau has praised him as the team’s most consistent performer in the second half of the season, and the numbers certainly bear that out. Not only did Plekanec possess the best plus/minus on the team (plus 10), but he also set career highs in games played (81), goals (20), assists (27), points (47), and power play goals (5).
Looking back on this past season and on his future with the Canadiens, G.M. Bob Gainey reflected that, “Tomas Plekanec proved to be one of our most consistent players last season, he established career highs in all categories and his defensive play was extremely efficient. He is young, dynamic and we strongly believe he is ready to take on more responsibilities with our club.”
And today, Tomas Plekanec came full circle, as the Canadiens resigned one of their most promising players to a two year contract. The doubters have been temporarily silenced. With his place on the team secure and his importance to the team recognized by all, only one question remains. What to do for an encore?