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Although he underachieved considerably this season and has a pricey cap hit, there’s still a case to be made that Tomas Plekanec is worth protecting from the Expansion Draft.

I’m not going to make the case based on being loyal to a veteran player who has been loyal to the team that drafted him back in 2001.  Loyalty is great but with the cap starting to flatten out, teams have to make hard decisions, no matter how good of a soldier a player has been.

Instead, I’m going to argue a somewhat sad but largely indisputable point – losing Plekanec makes an already woefully weak group of centres a lot worse.  It doesn’t seem like Alex Galchenyuk is going to be given another shot down the middle so that would leave Montreal with Phillip Danault, Torrey Mitchell, and youngsters that have either faltered or have shown they’re not ready for full-time NHL action.

Believe me, I know the cap implications if Plekanec were to be selected by Vegas.  $6 million in extra room is a lot to work with.  However, what’s out there in free agency?  Joe Thornton is the top option and it’s hard to imagine him coming to Montreal.  Martin Hanzal is set to get a terrible overpayment from someone and is a 2/3 like Plekanec.  Nick Bonino is also heading for a nice pay day but will his offensive production carry over away from Pittsburgh?  These two won’t get $6 million but allotting a big chunk of that to one of them won’t exactly move the needle much (and would cost them beyond next season as well).  Those are the best free agents out there and they won’t exactly fix things.

I’m also not convinced that Plekanec can’t at least rebound somewhat from his nightmarish season.  He’s not going to magically hit 60 points again but I wouldn’t write off something in the high 30’s to low 40’s as being unrealistic.  Even with that contract, someone capable of putting up that type of production while being good in his own end is a tough player to lose for free.

There’s also the trade route.  Although this season was one to forget, I’d find it hard to believe that there’s no trade market for him.  Plekanec’s value is far from at its peak but given how bad the centre market is in free agency, there would be teams willing to take a one year flyer.  There’s value in ensuring that’s still an option as well.

In terms of finding room for him on the list of seven forwards, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a youngster like Charles Hudon or Jacob de la Rose that comes off either.  Is Andrew Shaw for another half-decade at $3.9 million going to excite the Golden Knights?  It would be hard to see them make that type of commitment and if they did, that would do a lot more in terms of freeing up money long-term anyways.

With all this said, I don’t expect the Habs to have Plekanec on their protected list when it’s submitted this weekend.  But I doubt it’s an automatic that they’ll unprotect him like some may think.  Plekanec still fills a fairly important role on this team, one that won’t be easy to replace in free agency, even with the extra money freed up.  With how weak they are down the middle, making that spot even weaker may not be the best route to take.