Saturday, January 16, 2010

Plekanec - Should he stay or should he go?

With Habs GM Bob Gainey looking to parlay Jaroslav Halak into secondary scoring help up front it’s becoming more and more likely that Tomas Plekanec will remain a Montreal Canadien beyond the trade deadline. Even before the injuries to Andrei & Sergei Kostitsyn, the Habs were already looking for more secondary scoring help to off-set the brutal production from the “Next Six” on their forward depth chart.

Other than 35 year old Glen Metropolit (UFA), Max Pacioretty & Travis Moen, much more was expected from Maxim Lapierre (RFA) , Matt D’Agostini (RFA) & Sergei Kostitsyn (RFA). The off-ice issues with Sergei are well documented and not worth repeating here but everyone expected more than 4 points in 19 games. Regardless of what happens with Tomas Plekanec, the greatest concern is over the 3rd and 4th line Center positions for the remainder of this year and next. Brock Trotter and Ben Maxwell will likely get an opportunity to audition before the trade deadline but neither is suited for 3rd line duties. Unless Lapierre can turn it around now, Gainey will have little choice but to use his remaining cap space of about $1 Million to solidify the position, which by the Trade deadline translates to a rental player with a near $4 Million contract.

Simply put, if the Habs are intent on making the playoffs and are within reach during the 72 hour trade window that opens after the Olympic break, they can’t afford to trade Thomas Plekanec. The potential scenario unfolding is strikingly similar to the Sheldon Souray situation back in 2006-2007 when Bob Gainey had to choose between making a run at the playoffs or trade Souray and likely miss them. In hindsight, Gainey made the right move as Edmonton is now trying hard to trade the injury prone 33 year old who has two more years to run on his $5.4 Million contract, which is just 375k less than what Andrei Markov currently earns.

If Gainey does trade Plekanec to a contender, he surely won’t receive a Center in return that’s ready to play on the top two lines this season as playoff teams try to add capable bodies to create more depth, not reduce it. At best, Gainey could get a high end prospect that’s in and out of a competing line-up or a Junior player that’s only there because he still has eligibility. Not the sort of player the Habs could rely on to replace Plekanec’s ES, PP & PK minutes and production and still make the playoffs.

And production is what this dilemma is all about. Going into the season, nobody in their right mind honestly expected Plekanec to perform as he has so far this year. Gainey certainly didn’t and one glance at Plek’s career numbers makes it almost impossible to predict if we’ll see Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde each season. Should Gainey sign Plekanec to a lengthy, cap friendly deal in the range of $4.5 Million and hope Dr. Jekyll was cured by better linemates or will Mr. Hyde reappear next year regardless?

Yes, the Habs do have major salary cap worries next year but they are not insurmountable. With cheaper replacements for Mara, Metropolit & Laraque the Habs could resign their RFAs and/or replace them with similarly priced talent (White, Subban etc.) and still offer upwards of $4.5 Million to Plekanec. To make it fit however, the Habs will need to shed just over $3 million beyond the anticipated moves with the prime candidates being Roman Hamrlik or Jaroslav Spacek. Whoever remains will likely mentor PK Subban next year.

If Bob Gainey believes Mr. Hyde will return next year you can be certain Plekanec will be allowed to walk on July 1st and still get between $5-6 Million on the open market. It’s not a good year for UFA forwards so there will be a bidding war and overpayment for his services. What Gainey will not do is trade Plekanec just to avoid losing him for nothing and miss the playoffs as a result. As many teams have shown over the years, once you’re in, anything can happen so unless Plekanec is bundled with Halak and others for a young 2nd line Center who can perform now, it’s becoming to look more and more likely that Plek’s will remain a Hab, at least until July 1st.