Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Does Plekanec Have a Future in Montreal?

Something that has been bothering me of late is the question as to what role Plekanec will be playing in Montreal in two years time?  The logic is quite simple, Montreal currently has three offensively gifted, NHL calibre centres (Plekanec, Desharnais, and Eller), with one on the cusp of the big league (Leblanc), one to be ready in about two years (Bournival) and one possible bona-fide draftee this season.  That's a possible six centres on the club in two years, which makes no sense, thereby implying that some will be traded.  I suspect that this will be Plekanec, and here's why.

First it is necessary to elaborate on the role played by each player:
1) Plekanec seems a mixture between a second and third line centre.  He has offensive skill enough that he can put up serious points, but also has the defensive capabilities to play as a third line penalty killer/energy player.  The creates the situation that I suspect will result in his trade.
2) Desharnais is, if he can continue the game we've seen this season into the future, a quality second line centre.  Possessing a hard work ethic and excellent offensive skill set, Desharnais definitely fits the mould for a top six player.  His lack of size (only 5'7''!), however, really prevents him from moving up or down from this position.
3) Eller's role is ambiguous as of now.  We've seen flashes of offensive brilliance, but by and large Eller has yet to prove that he can consistently put up points in the NHL.  Eller has size and physical play, and if this can be combined with consistent offensive production Eller could perhaps even play as a first line centre in a couple years.  I see Eller as a quality third line centre, however, and I will be conservative and assume he sticks to this role.
4) Leblanc also has an ambiguous role at the moment because it is still unclear if he will play as a centre or be moved to the wing.  I will be conservative here and say that Leblanc will find his place on the wing.
5) Bournival will likely find his place on the third line if he sticks with the club at all.  He has offensive capabilities in junior, but his slow growth and long track to the NHL implies that he doesn't have the natural skill set necessary to play on the top two lines for at least three or four years.  We're currently pretty deep with second/third line centres and Bournival could be traded for another prospect or a veteran in a year or two.
6) Many potential top centres are available every year at the draft.  Montreal has for a few years had a policy of picking the best player available no matter what the team needs, but the team can always trade up or down a couple places to get a player they need.  Seeing as how a top 5 pick has become more and more likely, this play could possibly even start on the Habs next season.  Some top centres available this year are: Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gaunce, Filip Forsberg, and Radek Faksa.  These guys could go anywhere from second pick to tenth, so it is likely Montreal will be able to choose from among most of them.  Players drafted this high are those that are most likely to become top line centres.

So what do we make of all of this?  Montreal has two bonafide second line centres (Plekanec and Desharnais), two likely third line centres (Eller and Bournival), one player who could make things more complicated (Leblanc) and one possible first line centre (the new draftee).  Who stays and who goes?  I think it's safe to say that Montreal won't be a cup competitor again for at least a couple years.  Plekanec is currently 29 years old, and by that time he'll be 31.  Quality teams are generally competitors for a few years in and around actually winning, like Pittsburgh and Detroit were, like Vancouver and Boston are right now.  So if the Habs start competing when Plekanec is 31, and they compete for three years or so, he'll be 34 by the end of it.  Desharnais, on the other hand is only 25, and will will be 27/30 at those same respective times.  I think Plekanec's age will make him the more attractive trade candidate for both the buyer and the seller, thereby rendering him the more likely to be traded.

With two younger players competing for the spot below him on the third line, and one possible bonafide centre to be drafted this year, I think the club has inadvertently drafted him out of a spot.  I really like Plekanec and would be sad to see him go, but I think the salary cap limitations and the need to focus on the youth movement have rendered him a player of our past.  Plekanec was supposed to be coming into his own right when the club was supposed to be winning the cup (under Carbonneau, Gainey and Koivu).  Unfortunately that didn't happen, and our plans were delayed a few years.  A few years are actually quite important when talking about hockey players and contracts, however, and I think those few years created a situation in which the club's long term plans have changed and Plekanec no longer fits those plans.

As a last comment, I find this logic to be consistent with my understanding of the team's plans as spelled out in the prior two articles.  Plekanec is a veteran who would bring in a good, NHL ready prospect and a high pick or two.  Trading him next year, or in two years, depending how our younger players are developing, would help the team's long-term growth by supporting and expanding the number of quality young players in this organization.

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