HMCS MONTRÉAL – Tomas Plekanec is now in his 12th season with the storied Canadiens. He has enjoyed many productive seasons as a cornerstone at centre ice for the franchise. And despite what his critics claim, he has been nearly as productive in the playoffs as he had been in the regular season. All that, while playing the role of the shutdown center.
Plekanec was a third round selection of the Canadiens in 2001. After spending three productive years in the AHL as a two-way centre, he graduated to the Canadiens NHL roster. He also had an immediate impact as a top-9 center. He worked his way to the position of top line center in 2009 paired with Mike Cammalleri and provided a 70 point season. That season, the team made a deep run to the Eastern Conference Finals defeating the Penguins and Capitals. Plekanec played a shutdown role against NHL All-Stars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin before the team faltered against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Plekanec has never been able to reproduce that level of production since then. However, he is a centre capable of producing about 50 points despite a turnstile of wingers with varying degrees of skill to line up with him.
He has been a consummate team player, never complaining publicly and always providing a yeoman’s effort on the ice to the limits of his skills. He has always been a coach’s favorite defensively, whether it is Guy Carbonneau, Jacques Martin or Michel Therrien. Plekanec always gets the toughest assignments such as Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, Crosby or Ovechkin. And he is able to minimize their impact on a game while providing some points as well.
That being said, he is now 34 years old, and the hard minutes he has played in the past seem to be slowing him down. He has had a difficult offensive stat to the 2016-2017 season with only three points in 10 games. However he has still provided exemplary defensive play and generated offensive opportunities. And at this point of the season, his assignments and linemates have been, at times, indicative of a third line centre.
His six million dollar deal with one more season remaining is a hefty cost for his current role. However his relegation has more to do with Michel Therrien trying to reunite the wonder twins David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty than his production woes. Plekanec is currently still the second best centre on the team. However, in my opinion, on a true contending team he is better suited to the role he currently fills on the third line.
That investment in Plekanec may bear more fruit in the form of mentoring rookie Artturi Lehkonen. It is apparent that Lehkonen has all the skill to be a top-6 NHL winger and is proving that he can play a 200 foot game. Paired with Plekanec however will only help to further improve his defensive play, and he can take advantage of the veteran’s underrated playmaking skills to get some offensive chances.
As the roster stands now, the team is not cemented yet. Seeing David Desharnais placed back into a top-6 role to provide the offence that is lacking from Plekanec signals a need for the Canadiens, an upgrade on the second line center.
Plekanec is one of the few centers in the NHL who has averaged more than two minutes on the power play and penalty kill units. His greatest weapon is his versatility. If Montreal were to enter the playoffs with Plekanec producing his expected offensive numbers, the team would be better off than the current lineup at center. If he cannot rediscover his offensive production soon, then it will be time to move on from him. However, having scored his first goal this season, and being visibly relieved after scoring it, may be exactly what he needed to regain the confidence he needs to find that offence.
If Plekanec can regain his offensive form, it could allow more time for Marc Bergevin to find an upgrade at centre to pair with Pacioretty. Doing so would likely mean that Plekanec be relegated yet again. And burying six million dollars on the third line is a hefty cost for a third line center.
This season is not the time to hold sentimental attachments to players. While Plekanec is nearing the end of his career, he still holds value to the team on the ice and as a trade asset. The decision now lies with Bergevin: Is Plekanec’s diminishing skill set worth more to the team now in wins, or in a trade to upgrade an area of need for the current roster?