Tomas Plekanec recently began his dozenth season as a Montreal Canadien – his richest to date, in what has been a very lucrative tenure for the reliable Czech centre. Just over one year ago, Turtleneck Tom was signed to a two-year contract extension worth $6 million per season – up from the $5 million he had earned in each of the previous five years. Not many Habs fans will question the fact that Plekanec adds a great deal of value to the lineup, but is it worth over 8% of the entire player payroll? As the contracts of important players such as Alex Galchenyuk, Alexander Radulov and Nathan Beaulieu reach their end, this is a question Marc Bergevin and his front office will have to ask themselves. Plekanec only has one year remaining on his contract beyond this season, but with the players mentioned above needing new contracts this summer, can the Habs even afford to keep him for his final year?
The positives on Plekanec are plentiful. The chiseled Czech has not only served the Canadiens faithfully since he permanently made the team in 2005, but he has done so as something of an iron man. Since his rookie season, Plekanec hasn’t missed more than five games in a given year. For a team that is famously in the bad books of the injury gods, this reliability and durability cannot be understated.
Plekanec is known as a tremendous defensive forward – especially on the penalty kill. He has been tasked with shutting down the best in the league, often getting under the skin of a certain Cole Harbour native who currently plies his trade in Pittsburgh.
The Canadiens’ management group has stressed the need for leadership – as evidenced by a couple of mildly significant moves this offseason that you may have caught wind of. Not only does Plekanec bring a wealth of experience and wear a letter for the Habs, but he has captained his native Czech Republic’s national team no less than four times – the most recent occasion being the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Finally, Plekanec can also be counted on to contribute to the offence – normally in the 50 point range although he is off to a slower-than-usual start this year.
When all of the above are considered, one might suggest this is a no-brainer. Plekanec is great defensively, is a veteran leader and can provide offence. When you look closer at his contributions in each of these areas though, it soon becomes clear that while Plekanec is a Czech of All Trades, he is a Master of None.
Let’s look closer at Plekanec as a defensive forward. Coaches, fans and media alike all love Plekanec’s defensive ability, but his trophy case remains conspicuously void of a Selke. It’s true that awards are fickle and are certainly not the defining characteristic of a player’s success, but Plekanec, who Habs fans claim as being among the league’s better defensive forwards, has never so much as garnered a nomination for the Trophy that Gainey built. Again, this absolutely does not mean Plekanec is a slouch as a defensive forward, but it does help to paint a picture of where he sits among his class.
Perhaps, rather than pointing to something as trite as awards, it’s better to examine the numbers. Plekanec’s career plus/minus numbers are decent and almost always in the positive, but pale in comparison to the likes of a player such as perennial Selke nominee Patrice Bergeron – who, it should be noticed, makes only $875K more than Plekanec. The numbers are symptomatic of Plekanec as a whole. Good, but perhaps not great.
The next area to consider is leadership. The Canadiens have found themselves scrambling for a true leader since Saku Koivu was unceremoniously shown the door. This, despite the fact that the veteran Plekanec has been here the whole time. Experience and longevity are often confused for leadership and influence. When adversity has emerged and plunged the Habs’ into dark days, Plekanec has been rare to be found. This was true not only during the great implosion of 2015-16, but also numerous times throughout the playoff runs of the recent past. In fact, the most recent series loss against the Lightning in 2015, featured a number of Plekanec gaffes which at times painted him to be more of a liability than an asset. Certainly not a goat, per se…although the goatee does make it tough to not invite the comparison.
Plekanec’s playoff struggles are nothing new and are well-documented. While true leaders often elevate their game during the postseason, he appears to do the opposite. Every player has his shortcomings, but those of Plekanec seem to emerge at the most crucial times.
This brings us to the final category: offence. While Plekanec does normally account for about 50 points per season, Habs fans will be the first to tell you that he is not a player who should be relied upon for a big goal or an offensive spark. Plekanec has been known to kill a power play almost as effectively as he kills penalties and is many times the ‘square peg’ in the top six, often struggling to find chemistry with scoring wingers. Adding to this is the fact that Plekanec has just begun his 34th year on the planet, meaning his production will only decline from here on out.
Plekanec’s positives are many, but his negatives are real and noteworthy.
This is not to suggest that Plekanec is expected to be perfect, or even that these negatives outweigh his tremendous positives. In fact, it can be said that Tomas Plekanec is an ideal third line centre, who can adequately step into a second-line role when needed.
Great! So what’s the problem? Well, unfortunately Plekanec is paid like a first-liner – and for the cash-strapped Habs, overpaying players is not a luxury they can afford.
Many things will remain to be seen as the NHL season progresses from this one to the next. The pending free agents will continue to define their value and the salary cap for next season remains to be determined. In a perfect world, the cap will rise and the 2017-18 edition of the Canadiens will be able to accommodate all of their free agents while maintaining the existing existing core. If that is not the case, though, Tomas Plekanec is a player who must be closely scrutinized and could represent a tough decision for Team Bergevin. It would be terrible to see such a long-serving Hab end up on the waiver wire, but hockey, like all businesses, can be a cruel, cold place. Best to bring a turtleneck.