Leafs solidify with Plekanec; remain players ahead of deadline

Courtesy of Habs TV, Tomas Plekanec talks about being traded from the Montreal Canadiens to the Toronto Maple Leafs and comments on the fans in Montreal.

TORONTO – Not only did the Toronto Maple Leafs address their biggest need by prying serviceable centre Tomas Plekanec out of Montreal, they left themselves room to do more work ahead of the trade deadline.

With the Canadiens retaining 50 per cent of Plekanec’s remaining salary in Sunday’s deal, the Leafs maintained the ability to add another $3.4-million under the cap.

That’s significant.

Lou Lamoriello also has two free contract slots to work with after unloading Eric Fehr (San Jose) and Nikita Soshnikov (St. Louis) in separate trades over the last week. The Leafs general manager has prioritized flexibility in the hours leading up to Monday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline – leaving open the opportunity to be part of any late bidding in what has been a seller’s marketplace so far.

Toronto had to pay a premium to bolster its depth down the middle, sending a 2018 second-round pick along with AHLers Rinat Valiev and Kerby Rychel to Montreal for Plekanec and AHLer Kyle Baun.

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It was a similar trade to the one the Leafs made with Tampa at last year’s deadline to bring in Brian Boyle for a run at the playoffs.

Expectations are significantly higher here now. At 39-20-5, the Leafs are on pace to eclipse franchise records for wins (46) and points (103), but they’re also facing a treacherous first-round playoff matchup with either Boston or Tampa.

Mike Babcock has made no secret of the fact he’d like more options at centre, and can now roll out a strong group of Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Plekanec – at least once Matthews is healthy.

Toronto’s best player suffered a second-degree shoulder separation on Thursday night and could be out up to four weeks, according to a report from my colleague Nick Kypreos. He was placed on injured reserve to create roster space for Plekanec.

The 35-year-old Czech has spent his entire 981-game NHL career in Montreal, where he’s largely been deployed in a shutdown role. Even though his offensive skills have worn away with time, Plekanec provides Babcock with another solid option on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle.

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There may be a period of adjustment in jumping to a division rival after so long in one organization. Plekanec will wear No. 19 in Toronto — his traditional No. 14 is retired by the team — and he expects to arrive in Tampa in time for Monday’s game at Amalie Arena.

“Obviously [the circumstances around the trade are] a little bit special, but these days those things happen. It’s a business,” said Plekanec. “It’s been 15 years [with the Canadiens], even more. It’s my home now. I have two kids that basically speak French — they go to the French school — and I can’t say enough good things about the Montreal Canadiens organization, about the city of Montreal. We loved it.

“It’s nothing unusual, I guess, these days, and like I said before: I’m very excited to be part of the Maple Leafs right now and make a good run in the playoffs.”

Plekanec made two trips to the Eastern Conference final with Montreal, but never had the chance to play for a Stanley Cup. He likes the makeup of the group he’s joining.

“It’s a very talented team with a bunch of really, really skilled guys,” said Plekanec.

His arrival will allow William Nylander to be shifted back to the wing while Matthews is out injured and should knock Dominic Moore from the lineup.

The Leafs can now shift their attention to finding an upgrade on the blue line — a right-hand shot defenceman would be preferable — while weighing decisions on James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov and possibly even Bozak.

Each of those players is a pending unrestricted free agent and likely doesn’t figure into the organization’s long-term plans. Given the price currently being paid for rentals, there is merit to at least gauging the market on what kind of return they may garner.

It’s important to note that Toronto had room under the cap to absorb Plekanec’s entire $6-million hit for the remainder of the season, but chose to surrender more assets in exchange for getting him at half price.

That decision hints at more to come. Stay tuned.

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