TORONTO – Mike Babcock made a point of not asking his friend Claude Julien for intel on Tomas Plekanec after the Toronto Maple Leafs traded a nice package of futures in order to dress Montreal’s long-serving centreman in blue.
“If you made the deal and you ask and you don’t get any good feedback, what do you do? I already made the deal,” chuckles Babcock, noting that calling a rival coach prior to a trade would be tampering. “I’m not into bad news after the fact.”
So it came of some relief when Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, who orchestrated the deadline rental, sent a glowing report on Plekanec to the Toronto coach.
“We feel he’s going to be real important for us,” Babcock says. “We’re real confident in his ability and his professionalism.
“It’s real important to have a [forward] group you can put out against anybody, besides [Nazem] Kadri’s group, and I think he’ll be able to do that for us, especially as we add our depth back. That’ll help him.”
Leafs Nation may feel underwhelmed by the clean-shaven Plekanec’s first seven games in strange clothes. The veteran has yet to register a point for his new club and has been a minus-2 while skating about 10 minutes a night instead of his usual 16. (Were his powers attached to his goatee?)
In truth, it’s too early to judge the trade until Auston Matthews returns to Toronto’s lineup (the superstar skated in a yes-contact sweater Saturday morning and is nearing a healthy return, Babcock says), and the playoffs start.
Plekanec – a $6-million impending UFA on track for a July 1 pay cut and, quite possibly, a return to Montreal – is here for a specific purpose: Be a second shutdown centre, kill penalties, and win critical draws in the post-season. This is all a dress rehearsal for April.
“There’s some bumps in the road,” admits Plekanec, still wrapping his brain around a new defensive-zone structure and searching to strike chemistry with a revolving cast of wingers. “It’s getting better every day. I feel much more comfortable now than I did 10 days ago.”
St. Patrick’s night, Plekanec will face-off against the only franchise he knew for 15 years. He went to dinner Friday night with some of his former teammates and it “felt like old days – but it’s a different time now,” he says.
“It’s always a good mood around here, and we’re just getting ready for the playoffs.”
Julien has dubbed the reliable, flash-free (turtleneck notwithstanding) Czech “the ultimate professional,” and the P-word continually pops up when you speak to players on either side of hockey’s oldest rivalry about Plekanec.
The guy even says he’s fine with shaving every couple of days because he likes to follow rules. He’s a Lou Lamoriello dream.
“He’s just a professional. He shows up every day. Even on days off, he has a tough time staying home. He’s kinda got a routine that he’s gotta stick to,” says Brendan Gallagher.
“I’d probably enjoy hitting him. I had a lot of fun with Pleky over the years. Anytime you get a chance to play against one of your friends, you’re gonna have fun with him before, but during the game, you want to win because you don’t want to hear about it all the time. It’s going to be a fun night.”
Plekanec’s understated work ethic rubbed off on a young Gallagher. The winger can still recall the look Plekanec would shoot him on the bench if he did something stupid and the diligence with which he approached the craft of shutdown centre.
“The way he did it, he was very smart. He was very good at picking apart little holes in the opponents and passing that on,” Gallagher says.
“He’s not the most outspoken or vocal guy, but I think the way he leads by example is important.”
Although the trade didn’t catch Plekanec by surprise, that doesn’t exactly make temporarily moving away from your wife and children in Montreal to go live in a downtown Toronto hotel much easier. Countryman and one-time Canadiens teammate Tomas Kaberle has helped Plekanec get accustomed to his new city, and Plekanec’s relationship with Bergevin has not been damaged by the transaction.
“I respect Marc so much. I appreciate all my time I had in Montreal and that chat we had prior to what happened. I’m perfectly fine with it,” Plekanec says.
“He could have traded me without even talking to me. I didn’t know where I’m going – we didn’t talk about that – but I knew I was staying in the East. We talked about that, so I was really happy.”
When his Toronto stint is over, Plekanec will have 999 NHL games played. It’s not so farfetched to imagine him slipping on a Montreal sweater for 2018-19’s opening night and celebrating Game 1,000 and an emotional homecoming all at once. He hopes that door is open.
For now, however, the ultimate professional is focused solely on improving his game for Toronto’s sake, trying to learn a fresh system so his natural instincts can take over come playoff time.
“When things come automatic and you react and you’re feeling good about yourself and you know what’s going on, things go better. When you think too much, your feet don’t move,” Babcock says.
“Proud guy. Wants to do well. Don’t overthink, just play. He’ll be great tonight.”