BROSSARD, Que. — For the vast majority of his time with the Montreal Canadiens, Tomas Plekanec was defined by the fact neither his high-level play nor his demeanour ever varied much. Of course, his performance was bound to trail off at some point and, on his final day as a Hab, his countenance — if ever so slightly — finally cracked, too.
Sitting beside GM Marc Bergevin at the team’s practice facility, Plekanec was his soft-spoken self while discussing the fact the Canadiens had placed him on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract. He was a company man until the end, because had he simply opted to retire upon hearing he wouldn’t get back in the lineup, the remainder of his $2.25-million cap — said to be $1.79 million by CapFriendly.com — would have stayed on the books throughout the year.
Instead, he listened to what Bergevin – who confirmed the Habs are fully clear of Plekanec’s cap hit due to the mutually agreed upon contract termination – had to say about creating room for the young players who are the future of this team and accepted his fate. After 1,001 NHL games, 984 with Montreal, his time in the world’s best league is over.
“It was harder than I thought it was going to be,” said Plekanec when asked about delivering that very message to his teammates just before they hit the ice for practice on Friday morning.
When Plekanec re-signed to play for Montreal last summer following a brief stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was understood he would fill a greatly reduced role from the top-six minutes he logged for so many years on the Canadiens. But right from the drop, there were signs he could be squeezed out. Plekanec was a healthy scratch for Montreal’s first three contests of the season. Then, after returning to play his 1,000th NHL game, he was sidelined with a back ailment. Now that he’s almost ready to return, Bergevin had to make what he called and extremely difficult decision, informing Plekanec that there simply isn’t room for him on the Habs anymore thanks to sudden changes in the middle of the ice.
Nobody could have anticipated off-season acquisition Max Domi would thrive to the tune of 19 points in 16 games after being moved from the wing with the Arizona Coyotes to centre in Montreal. Another eyebrow-raiser is the rapid development of 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who may not be putting up big numbers, but has almost seemed Plekanec-esque in his ability to aptly handle all zones of the ice.
Even with forwards Paul Byron and Joel Armia sidelined by injuries, the writing on the wall was getting more clear and bold.
“I’ve been around for long enough to know these guys need to get the chance,” said Plekanec, who thanked Bergevin and owner Geoff Molson for the way he was treated right through the end.
Every one of Montreal’s young guns would do well to follow the example Plekanec set since becoming a full-time member of the Canadiens in 2005-06. Steady and stoic night after night, Plekanec’s 606 points in 984 games is by far the most put up by a Hab between his Dec. 31, 2003 start date with the club through the present day. Of the 12 seasons Plekanec finished in Montreal, nine resulted in playoff showings and his 49 playoff points pace all Canadiens during his tenure.
Things were still going swimmingly on the October day in 2015 when, about two weeks before his 33rd birthday, Plekanec signed a two-year extension with Montreal worth $6 million annually. He put up 23 points through the first 23 games of that 2015-16 campaign, but things fell apart for the team that winter when Carey Price was hurt and the club missed the playoffs by a mile. Though still a reliable defensive player, Plekanec’s production dropped to 28 points in 78 outings in 2017-18 and, last season, he found himself on the move at the trade deadline, headed to the young Maple Leafs to help solidify their depth up the middle for a playoff run.
Even on the day he was dealt, there was a sense Plekanec — who acknowledged it was “weird” wearing another jersey for a couple months — was a strong candidate to return to Montreal, the franchise that meant so much to him, and vice-versa.
“It’s hard,” said injured Habs captain Shea Weber. “It’s an emotional time, I’m sure, for him and even for myself and our team. [He’s] a guy who’s poured his heart into this organization.”
Weber said it was tough seeing Plekanec struggle to tell the boys what was going on, but he lightened the mood a little by noting — in true ‘Pleky’ fashion — he kept it short and sweet.
Plekanec, who turned 36 on Halloween, said he will not suit up for another NHL team no matter how things play out and will instead focus on the possibility of continuing his career at home in the Czech Republic. He will continue to pull for the Canadiens and noted he hopes the newcomers and youngsters on the club soon get to experience his favourite thing about playing in Montreal, suiting up for post-season matches at the Bell Centre. In a sign of just how universally respected Plekanec is, most of the assembled media walked up to the podium at the conclusion of his press conference to shake the hand of a guy who embodies the “true pro” cliché.
“The fans were always so great with me,” Plekanec said. “I’m just hoping they will remember me as a guy who always gave 100 percent for the team, for the logo.”
There’s really no other way to see it.