Thursday, January 29, 2009

An innovative evaluation tool

My colleague Robert Laflamme had an interesting story yesterday about Tomas Plekanec and why exactly he's been so average this season, to put it kindly.

Laflamme reports that Guy Carbonneau had a little chat with his underachieving centreman after Wednesday's lively morning practice session, which, by the way, was set for 9 a.m. so the team could enjoy some of the Florida sun in the afternoon. Isn't that what the all-star break is for? But I digress.

Carbonneau's evaluation of Plekanec's play so far this season is a case of someone stating the obvious, but it needs to be heard from the coach because they don't always see certain things as being quite as obvious as the rest of us. So when Carbonneau says Plekanec needs to get away from the "periphery" and go play in traffic a little more, it carries some weight.

Plekanec's response that he doesn't need the coach to tell him he's stunk, that he puts a lot of pressure on himself, is a sincere one. A lot of athletes say stuff like that, but it's not really true. In Plekanec's case, based on my dealings with him, I think a comment like that is 100 per cent real because he truly is very tough on himself and is always reluctant when praise is being heaped on him (though he hasn't really had to deal with that of late).

So you take that character trait - or flaw, depending on how you look at it - you add to that to his comment that his problems this season have more to do with his head than any injury, and you get a burning question.

Is it your contract status that's bugging you Tomas?

I heard a bunch of people talking about this on the radio yesterday, that the abundance of impending free agents on the team is having an impact on their play, most notably Plekanec and Christopher Higgins.

Personally, I'm convinced that Bob Gainey and his brain trust set the team up for this season because of the player's association had the option of opening up the collective bargaining agreement at the end of the year, an option they officially declined last Friday. Is it a coincidence that Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu were signed to deals set to expire at the same time? Could be, but I don't think so. Same goes for Steve B├ęgin, Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Bouillon and all the other supporting cast types set to become free agents this summer, and I don't think Alex Tanguay or Robert Lang would be here if they had another year left on their deals.

Considering all these eternally long GUARANTEED contracts being thrown around these days, with Henrik Zetterberg of the normally prudent Detroit Red Wings being the latest one, the flexibility Gainey has given himself this summer has to be the envy of his peers.

But aside from flexibility, I'm wondering if there was something else behind that decision, somewhat of a test for his players to see how they deal with a different kind of pressure? Does Gainey really want to throw big money at a player who can't handle the "pressure" of playing for a contract? Because if he can't handle that pressure, how will he handle the Stanley Cup final?

The two impending free agents who have done themselves the biggest favours thus far are Mike Komisarek and Guillaume Latendresse. Komisarek's steady play this season essentially guarantees he'll cash in huge this summer, and Gainey probably wishes he would have locked the bruising defenceman into a long-term deal two years ago. Latendresse won't get a massive raise if only because he's a restricted free agent, but he's definitely played his way into the team's plans for the future.

Plekanec and Higgins have easily hurt themselves the most with their performances this season, though Higgins has the mitigating factor of injuries. Still, his play when healthy has been unspectacular, while Plekanec has reverted back to his "little girl" (his words, not mine) ways of last year's playoffs.

Plekanec seems to have avoided being banished to the press box for tonight's game against the Panthers as it's Ryan O'Byrne and Max Pacioretty who won't dress, but if Plekanec doesn't pick it up in a hurry he'll probably be the next on the list.

I say that if Higgins, Plekanec and all the others who are supposedly withering under the pressure of lacking job security aren't up to the task, then they're not likely to be someone Gainey is interested in having on his team.

Then again, the contracts could also have absolutely nothing to do with anything, and Gainey may not have even noticed that 16 contracts come off the books at the same time this summer.


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