TORONTO – An optimist might point out that this represents the perfect opportunity for Tomas Plekanec to turn things around with the Toronto Maple Leafs. By his own admission, things have not gone as planned for the veteran since arriving here in the first trade of his life.
“Obviously, I’d like to be better,” Plekanec said Monday, before the Leafs faced the Boston Bruins in Game 3.
There is a chicken-and-egg aspect to his situation. He’s not been put in a situation where most players could ever feel good – barely playing at all and starting fewer than 25 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone when he does. Among the 15 games where Plekanec has received his lowest ice time in the last decade, 13 have come with the Leafs (courtesy hockey-reference.com):
It is the same hired-gun role Brian Boyle filled for Mike Babcock’s team last spring. In a recent conversation, Boyle said that he had to embrace a total mindset change to get comfortable as a Leaf. His job was basically to win faceoffs and not get scored on at even strength.
“It’s not like that team needed anyone else to score goals,” said Boyle.
There’s not much glory in that line of work. You can only really be spotlighted for the wrong reasons, like when Plekanec came out for a key defensive zone faceoff against Patrice Bergeron’s line in Game 1 and wound up getting scored on in the final minute of the second period.
“You get paid to do certain things – that’s your job,” Babcock said later. “It wasn’t like I was avoiding that at all. I thought that was a real good situation for us. They’re supposed to be able to start in the D-zone and get us in the O-zone and get off the ice.”
You can only imagine how good it must have felt for the 35-year-old to arrive at the rink and see his name written on the board between Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner. With Toronto’s season basically hanging in the balance – down 0-2 to the Bruins – he’d received a promotion.
He knows each of them well after spending his entire career playing in the same division as the Bruins and facing them in five prior playoff series as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. He was deployed in a shutdown role for those matchups and spent a lot of time defending his own zone against the Bruins. Brad Marchand, Bergeron’s long-time winger, even cited Plekanec as the opponent who most irritates him.
“I hate him. Oh, I can’t stand him,” Marchand said at a Halifax charity dinner in 2014.
With the Marchand-Bergeron-David Pastrnak trio having torched the Leafs for 20 points in the opening two games of this series, Plekanec believes it’s important to take back the middle of the ice from them.
“We’ve got to be tight as a unit of five,” he said. “It’s never about one guy – one defenceman, one winger – we all have to be in the right spot, right position, really tight on them, don’t give them any time and space. They’re one of the best lines in hockey right now, obviously. Very confident.
“We’ve got to take that time away.”
The move from Montreal to Toronto has been a challenge on a couple fronts, with his wife and two kids staying back home, and his position as a hired gun being so unfamiliar. But the Leafs recognized they needed depth should they run into a situation like this one with Kadri and gave up a second-round pick and lower-tier prospects Rinat Valiev and Kerby Rychel to add it.
Any future referendum on whether that was a worthwhile price to pay for Plekanec could be tied to how he performs in Game 3. He’s not just expected to win draws and get off the ice on Monday.
“You come here and you’re not quite as important on your next team, it’s harder to be as impressive,” said Babcock. “He’ll get his opportunity here tonight. We’ve talked about this a number of times, to be prepared for it, and I know he’s done the work to do that. And so we expect him to be good.”