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The conflict at centre: How to make room for Galchenyuk

Every year it seems like there are rumours that Plekanec will be traded, yet he's still around, and he's probably going to be around a lot longer too.

Dave Sandford

It's the eternal discussion in Montreal, trade Tomas Plekanec for help on the wing, help on defence, clear out a 'guy who doesn't perform in the playoffs', and now to make room for Alex Galchenyuk.

I'm still not sure why moving Plekanec is considered a serious discussion. The issue of creating a new spot at centre of course arises from the arrival of Galchenyuk, selected 3rd overall in 2012 and envisioned as the team's elite centreman in years to come, needs a chance to play as a centre to develop. I coudn't agree more with this thought, but that means someone among Lars Eller, Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais needs to be pushed aside to accomodate this.

With Eller being the youngest among the team's centres, at 25, and his upward trends to being a reliable two-way centre for Montreal, it would seem odd to push out a low-cost forward at his age, especially since the team is arguably short of two-way talent in the top-9 following the departure of Brian Gionta. His cap hit is expected to remain friendly after he negotiates his new extension with the Canadiens, which could be anywhere between 2.5-3M+ depending upon term.

We still have the lingering concerns around consistency of course, and his ultimate offensive upside, given his career scoring to date is 103 points in 286 games. His playoff performance where he led all Habs forwards in scoring with 13 points in 17 games was certainly encouraging but again, we dance with the issue of a small sample size and projecting too much from it. Overall he is a cost-effective, two-way centre who still has upside he probably has not quite tapped into yet. Moving him out doesn't make much sense as he probably wouldn't net a good return relative to his own value, and Galchenyuk taking on secondary tough minutes is probably not a good way to start out as a centre in the NHL.

This takes us to what is really a debate about Tomas Plekanec versus David Desharnais, the team's number one centre in terms of responsibilities, versus the one that has been named so by media.

Plekanec has been the team's rock for the last half-decade at forward. He is one of the most consistent 20-goal scorers among all NHL centres since the 2006-2007 season, scoring 20G six different times, his only misses being the lockout-shortened 2013 season and the 2011-12 season, where he was essentially sabotaged by temporary head coach Randy Cunneyworth. Since the 2010-11 season, he has been the team's number one centre in terms of facing the opposing team's best players while leading all forwards in ice time.

Desharnais emerged the last three and a half years coming with the pedigree of being a high-flying offensive talent, but has often benefitted from favourable circumstances to gain this reputation, while not showing much of an aptitude on the defenside side of the game. These two players are head-to-head in the discussion of which man departs Montreal in order to make room for Galchenyuk at centre, and though I believe the answer should be obvious, I will attempt to make my case via statistics.

We will begin with average time on ice per game.

Time on ice per game
Year 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
Tomas Plekanec 20:45 19:12 19:46
David Desharnais 18:23 16:27 17:12

As you can see, there is a notable difference of at minimum, 2:23 per game and as much as 2:45. While of course this is weighted by Plekanec's duties on the penalty kill unit, it is a good reminder which player has more utility in more situations, and who is more capable of handling tough situations. This is also when it becomes important to examine a key even strength statistic on the analytics side of things: Relative Corsi Quality of Competition, which is used to examine the baseline quality of a player's typical opposition when they are on the ice in 5-on-5 situations. The higher the number, the tougher the opposition the player has faced, relative to their teammates.

Relative Corsi QoC
Season 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
Tomas Plekanec 0.905 0.954 1.392
David Desharnais 0.042 -0.246 0.120

As it is quite evident, Tomas Plekanec has faced a far, far higher even strength quality of opposition in the past three seasons. Plekanec faced what can be laid out as the primary level of competition for the Canadiens forwards in each season, while Desharnais could be rated at facing their tertiary level of competition, which takes us to another statistic, zone starts. That is, how often each of these skaters starts a shift in a particular zone. For simplicity's sake, we will examine how often both Plekanec and Desharnais start their 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone.

Offensive zone start%
Season 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
Tomas Plekanec 41.7% 47.6% 38.2%
David Desharnais 51.9% 62.0% 52.7%

As you can see, it is rather slanted in the favour of Desharnais, partly in order to conceal his defensive zone weaknesses but also because the coaching staff feels they need to optimize his offensive-zone chances. Arguably too much though, as we will now examine their even-strength point production over the past three seasons.

Even strength points
Season 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 Totals
Plekanec 28 18 30 76
Desharnais 40 21 37 98

At this point, you definitely see a weighted advantage to Desharnais in this column, albeit the major weight of the divide is derived from the 2011-12 season, where one can easily argue that Plekanec was essentially sabotaged while Desharnais was given nothing but the best in Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty for the better part of the season. Linemates for Plekanec throughout the season included such lowlights as Brad Staubitz, Ryan White, Mathieu Darche, Petteri Nokelainen and Mike Blunden.

Also once one weighs in his minimal level of competition, constant companionship of Max Pacioretty, the 2nd-most productive even-strength goal scorer per minute in the NHL over the past 3 seasons, and zone starts, it's obvious to see why Desharnais has such an advantage. Also while we discuss this point, it's worth taking a look at their power-play production over the past three seasons. This is probably a statistic of interest to some when the often-discussed topic of who is actually the better offensive talent is discussed, which always seems to get weighed immediately in favour of Desharnais.

Powerplay points
Season 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 Totals
Plekanec 18 15 10 43
Desharnais 20 7 15 42

As we can see, it's essentially a dead heat over the past three years. Which is interesting considering Desharnais is nearly exclusively on the power play with the team's best winger in Pacioretty, while Plekanec often has a rotating supporting cast around him season-to-season. Naturally there's the question of equal time on the power play, so we'll factor those numbers in as well, using average time per game over the last 3 seasons.

Powerplay ice time per game
Season 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
Plekanec 3:05 2:58 1:56
Desharnais 3:17 2:53 2:41

With near-equal time in the first two seasons of head-to-head power play production over a complete season and this past season when Desharnais edged Plekanec, he did hold a significant advantage of average time per game. Which again to me raises the obvious question, if Desharnais is such an offensive wizard compared to Plekanec, who is often accused of not being able to work with talented linemates, why doesn't this show up where the man advantage should give Desharnais an opportunity to really exploit his talents?

Overall, the team seems to really bend itself to favour Desharnais with linemates, zone starts and quality of competition. This is not a necessarily bad thing as some teams draw up an exploitation line to take advantage of when the opposition is at it's weakest but one has to question if the best Desharnais can put up over three seasons in this role is an average of 0.67 points-per-game over these three years, is it worth having him blocking the way of a potential franchise player like Galchenyuk? Desharnais was 27 years old this past season, which is noted as being right at the peak age for forward offensive production before it generally begins to decline. Naturally his offence will not fall off a cliff this year or next, but will it grow? Going by historical trends, the odds are very low. With his offensive numbers likely at a stall, it seems that the team has seen his best and would be best off moving him out before his numbers potentially decline and make his contract less moveable.

It is also worth considering the recent situation with Josh Gorges could repeat with Plekanec in a trade scenario. Like Gorges, Plekanec has a modified no trade clause that would likely allow him to block trades to teams he considered undesirable, thus handicapping Marc Bergevin from making the best possible move for his team. Desharnais is without any such protection on his current deal and while he is probably at a lower value in the market due to concerns about his size and defensive game, he can be dealt to any team without an issue. While there are many points to consider, Plekanec's ability to at least partially control his trade destination is a notable impedient to Montreal moving him for a desirable return.

The final consideration is one that seems unescapable in the Montreal market. Can you trade a popular Quebec-born player? The Canadiens are always under the microscope for 'local content' on the roster. Is Bergevin a GM that is willing to upset the media and fans that fixate on this concept in a hockey move to benefit his team? It's uncertain, as the team has been very PR-focused around it's french content since Geoff Molson took over the Canadiens. Whether this was apologizing for appointing unilingual Randy Cunneyworth as Head Coach and stating that hiring a bilingual coach was a top priority during the coaching search in the summer of 2012. Also, the most recent example being that recently-signed free agent Daniel Briere received the torch from Guy Lafleur at the Canadiens home opener this past season over team captain Brian Gionta or a franchise face like Carey Price. To date, we still are unsure of how much freedom Bergevin has to move a local name or if he is willing to do so if he has the freedom to do it. It is worth noting this factor could be just as much an impediment to Desharnais moving as Plekanec's no-trade clause is.

If you focus on the most key points involving value to the team and player ability, I do believe the argument holds that it is Desharnais, not Plekanec that is the centre that must be traded in order to accomodate the development of Galchenyuk as a centre. Will the return in the trade be as plentiful? Arguably no but such a deal is free of complications from the invoking of a no trade clause and leaves the team much more well-balanced at the centre position. With a pair of two-way centres in Eller and Plekanec, you not only have a greater ability to guard the developing Galchenyuk versus tough assignments but you also carry a far greater insurance against injuries, as the loss of one of Eller or Plekanec does not cripple the team's ability to match up with their opposition down the middle. It would not be a popular decision, but I believe the numbers argue that it is the right decision.