It’s been a roller coaster of a year for Tomas Plekanec. After entering a contract year last season, the long-time centre for the Montreal Canadiens struggled, like many others, to find the back of the net. While it was clear that over the course of the previous seasons his once steady offence was starting to decline, his other talents remained sharp. As the Canadiens’ season spiraled into disaster, it was the lifetime Montreal forward who headed to the rival Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline, where he bounced around their bottom six through the regular season and playoffs.
Afterward, just a few games short of 1000 for his NHL career, Plekanec went back to free agency and signed back with Montreal where, barring a major injury, he’ll hit that milestone. So, where does the Czech pivot fit in the lineup this season and what can fans reasonably expect from the 35 year old?
It’s fairly unreasonable to expect Plekanec to take a long-term role in the top six as both Jonathan Drouin and Phillip Danault have solid claims to those spots. That leaves the third and fourth centre spots up for grabs. For Plekanec, that puts him in a mix with the newly signed Matthew Peca, and re-signed Jacob de la Rose. We can see how Plekanec stacks up against both of these players with the handy SKATR tool from Bill Comeau below.
In Peca’s limited NHL time last year he did plenty on the offensive side of the puck with the Lightning, blowing away Plekanec’s rates for goals and assists. However, on the defensive side of things he was deplorable for his team, ranking low in almost every single possession metric. Plekanec, despite his offensive woes, remained a solid option for the Canadiens and he did that with a tougher level of competition than Peca.
Compared to Peca, de la Rose did better on the defensive side of the puck but still lags well behind Plekanec in almost every metric on the above charts. It will still be an open competition as the Canadiens try their best to sort out their roster heading into this season. From a pure possession standpoint, Plekanec will likely take over that third centre position on the roster.
So, assuming Plekanec takes that role, is he still a capable defensive option?
The charts above say yes, but there’s more to it than just the raw numbers. If we dig further into his heat maps for shots against and shots for, it shows that Plekanec might still add value for Claude Julien at both ends of the rink.
Above all else, with Plekanec on the ice, the Canadiens did a far better job at funneling shots on goal to the outside parts of the zone. As a centre, he’s instrumental in this as he has the heaviest defensive responsibility of all the forwards and, in looking at the heat map with him off the ice, he was a major factor in keeping pucks out of the high-danger areas.
Even on the offensive side of things, with Plekanec on the ice the Canadiens were generating a good number of high-danger chances, especially compared to when he was off the ice.
A heavy dose of shots on net from the upper slot, the faceoff dot, and right in front of the goal crease is a recipe for success regardless of the team. It should be noted that a hefty portion of the credit should go to Plekanec’s linemates as well, with Brendan Gallagher and Charles Hudon helping to insulate the veteran forward and drive play well into the offensive zone.
What killed the Canadiens despite them generating shots from these areas was an almost comically poor shooting percentage to start the year. Players like Hudon and Artturi Lehkonen seemed cursed despite creating dangerous shots game after game. For Plekanec this year, even with his ability to have some offensive flair, he shouldn’t be leaned on as a producer like he was in the past. Insulating him with someone like Hudon and a player with good defensive instincts like Joel Armia might create a solid line that Julien can deploy in any zone without much worry.
That is the crux of what Plekanec’s role will be this year — he’s likely going to be Julien’s safety blanket. The coach knows that Plekanec is capable of handling those heavy defensive zone starts, and even with his offensive decline he still has some use in the offensive zone. Even if Peca and Plekanec split some time due to their differences in playing style, it can be almost assured the Czech veteran will be used in the most crucial of situations. In a season filled with uncertainty, the familiar turtlenecked forward brings some semblance of stability to a team in transition in more ways than one.
SKATR charts courtesy of Bill Comeau. Heatmaps courtesy of HockeyViz.com