MONTREAL — This was a tough deal to make, but one Marc Bergevin absolutely had to pull the trigger on.
Tomas Plekanec was a heart-and-soul player for the Montreal Canadiens; a consummate pro; an ever-reliable spoke in the machine, drafted and developed by the franchise; a player who grew into a star, transitioned into a shutdown centre, and one who played in integral role in the development of several others in the organization; an alternate captain on the ice and a beloved teammate off of it; the 13th-highest scoring player in franchise history; a tough player to say goodbye to.
But the way the Canadiens general manager handled trading the longest-serving member of his team must absolutely be commended. In the end, Bergevin got an excellent return for the 35-year-old and gave himself his best opportunity at having a chance to re-sign him if he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Bergevin was under no obligation to consult with Plekanec on the deal — the Kladno, Czech Republic native had no trade protection — but he did just that and ended up respecting his wishes to remain in the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens had a potential deal in place with the Winnipeg Jets to fall back on but they opted to instead trade Plekanec, along with AHL forward Kyle Baun, to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a second-round pick, a 23-year-old 2013 first-rounder in forward Kerby Rychel and 22-year-old defenceman Rinat Valiev.
It’s that kind of co-operation that can go a long way towards mending whatever pain Plekanec endured in having to leave the only team he’s ever played for. A contract extension for him was being structured over the weeks leading up to his trade out of town and sources have informed us the parameters have been set for him to return if he so wishes.
If things work out that way, Plekanec’s 1,000th NHL game will indeed be played in a Canadiens uniform. That’s certainly what Montreal would hope for — for sentimental reasons, sure, but mostly because they know he can still contribute as a relatively inexpensive depth addition to their desperately wanting centre line. That the Maple Leafs only have 18 games remaining on their schedule makes it all possible. Assuming Plekanec plays in all of them, he’ll hit 999 when the Canadiens visit Toronto on the final day of the regular season.
And if Plekanec’s return to Montreal in the off-season doesn’t come to pass, the Canadiens can still live with the decision they made to trade him. Even if they’re retaining 50 per cent of what’s remaining of Plekanec’s $6-million cap hit, that’s a formality given that they have the fifth-most cap space in the NHL.
Forget living with it; Bergevin and his team should be thrilled. Toronto’s second-round pick in this year’s draft is being added to Chicago’s (acquired in the trade for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann in February of 2016), Washington’s (acquired in the 2017 trade for Lars Eller) and their own. That gives them five picks in the top 60 (including their own first-rounder) and nine total come June. And though Rychel and Valiev weren’t considered to be among the best in one of the richest prospect pools in the NHL, they both have NHL potential and will inevitably be given a chance to show it in Montreal (if they remain through Monday’s deadline).
With 24 hours to go before the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, the Canadiens have many more balls up in the air and lots of potential to add futures to the mix. They also have $7.7 million in cap space and can take on as many as seven more contracts without shedding any in order to comply with the 50-player contract limit.
That’s the type of flexibility NHL GMs pray for, even if it comes about as it has for Montreal — as a product of a lost season. It might enable the Canadiens to accrue contracted players who can help them moving forward, but it will also allow them to take on expiring contracts from cap/roster-crunched teams who might be willing to part with picks or prospects to rid themselves a contract or two and free themselves up for other moves.
“[Plekanec]’s the ultimate pro,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien before Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. “He comes to the rink and he’s there early. He prepares and he practises hard and he’s focused. He’s a quiet guy who’s got a good personality. He gets along with everybody, is well respected. When it comes to the game, I think when you look at — especially this year, and even in the past when I was coaching against this team here — he was always one of those guys, especially before the new rules came out, that was good on faceoffs.
“He really takes pride in the game without the puck, and he was one of those guys we always pushed a little bit to bring some offence because he definitely cares more about getting scored on than scoring but he’s capable of doing both. So I think when you look back at his stats and when you look back at his durability and everything else, he’s been a real good asset for this hockey club.”
Plekanec proved to be an excellent asset to the Canadiens, both as a player and as a trade chip.
The Maple Leafs did well to acquire him, and because Bergevin did things the way he did the Canadiens could end up with more out of the deal than they could’ve hoped for had he gone elsewhere.