Maple Leafs’ Plekanec ‘can’t erase 15 years just over a day or two’

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Nikki Reyes to preview Maple Leafs-Sabres on Monday, where Tomas Plekanec still hasn’t found his footing with his new club, and Matt Martin checks back into the lineup.

The colour of the turtlenecks may not have changed in Toronto, but everything else did.

Tomas Plekanec has seen his world turned inside-out since the move to the Maple Leafs. Strange doesn’t even begin to describe it.

“You can’t erase 15 years just over a day or two,” Plekanec said this weekend.

Consider that Tuesday morning was the first time since the Feb. 25 trade from Montreal where he actually woke up in Toronto. Plekanec switched allegiances just as the Leafs were embarking on their strangest road trip of the year – back-to-back games in Florida, followed by a rookie party, then an outdoor game at the U.S. Naval Academy and a visit to Buffalo.

The Leafs didn’t win any of those games. Plekanec established a new mark for his lowest ice time in five years in three of them. When you account for the reality of where he’s now playing, the veteran centre might fairly be wondering if he’s entered a twisted hockey Twilight Zone.

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“It’s not easy,” said defenceman Josh Gorges, who spent parts of eights seasons with Plekanec in Montreal before his 2014 trade to Buffalo. “Mid-season is one thing to just jump ship. You’re coming to a team that’s already kind of got their foundation of who they are, and what they are, and you’re the new guy trying to find your way. I think there’s probably added [emotion] when it’s Montreal and Toronto.

“That’s got to be heavy on the mind.”

He would certainly know.

Before getting moved to the Sabres, Gorges declined to waive his no-trade clause to facilitate a deal to the Leafs. He simply couldn’t imagine himself in that blue and white sweater. And he hadn’t even played half as many games with the Canadiens as Plekanec did.

“You give yourself to one team and you’re so adamant about who you are and what you belong to,” Gorges explained. “There were two teams especially – it was Boston and Toronto – you just, that rivalry, you love to play against them because you hate them, you know, which is a great thing. [You wonder] how am I supposed to give that same sort of approach and mentality to another team that I’ve become accustomed to hating for so long?”

At least Plekanec can busy himself with practical matters. He’s received permission to return to Montreal following Wednesday’s Leafs practice to get a quick visit in with his family and pick up some much-needed clothing.

“I didn’t pack much,” he said.

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It’s been three weeks since he last saw wife Lucie and sons Adam and Matyáš. The thought of being back with them brought a smile to Plekanec’s face during a quick chat following Monday’s 5-3 loss to the Sabres.

His on-ice results with the Leafs have been consistent with what you’d expect from a defensively-reliable fourth-liner. The team has controlled just a hair under 50 per cent of even-strength shot attempts with him on the ice so far and Plekanec has won slightly more than half of his faceoffs.

Even though Toronto’s penalty kill has stumbled in recent games, he was out for just one of the four power-play goals they’ve given up on the last eight attempts.

The veteran clearly has the support of Mike Babcock, who made no secret of his desire for another centre option in the leadup to the trade deadline. The Leafs coach has already spoken with Plekanec on a couple different occasions to help ease his transition.

“In Detroit, we traded for guys like that a number of times,” said Babcock. “The biggest thing when you come and you’ve been in one place a long, long time is you’re used to doing everything the same way and suddenly you find yourself on the ice and you’re thinking. And then wonder why nothing’s going right for you. Well, you’re spending too much time thinking and nothing moves.

“It’s all going to work out perfect for him and he’s just got to be a little bit patient with himself. We are. There’s no problem whatsoever. He’ll be a big part of our team. He’s just got to work through the process.”

From Toronto’s perspective, the value of acquiring Plekanec won’t truly be seen until Auston Matthews returns from injury and the big games arrive. It will allow Babcock to roll out Matthews, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Plekanec down the middle once the line matching goes to another level in the playoffs.

“I can get a can’t-miss matchup,” said Babcock.

Gorges was part of two deep playoff runs in Montreal with Plekanec and still thinks his former teammate has something to offer at this advanced stage of his career.

“They’re getting a good honest player that is a true professional,” said Gorges. “He’s going to come prepared to do what he has to do. He’s responsible. I think whatever the situation he may be in – he can still play power play, penalty kill, move up and down the lines, if need be, [and] play against the other team’s top lines.

“I think he makes the guys around him better, too. He’s a smart hockey player. He makes the game easy for the guys he’s playing with.”

First, he needs to make it a little easier on himself.

That’s still a work in progress. A quick trip home this week should help, not to mention a little more time spent with new teammates. Plekanec joked that his sons have no choice but to switch allegiances from the Habs to Leafs along with him.

They can do it together.

“It’s different,” he said. “It’s 15 years of something. It’s hard to erase it in a couple days. But it’s normal. These days players get traded and they’ve got to put new jerseys on. It’s the same for me.

“I’m trying to do the best I can.”

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