Gainey admitted that his policy of not negotiating during the season was not set in stone, and that it shifts from year to year. Seeing as Plekanec is the only significant unrestricted free agent on the team this year, I would imagine that policy might change.
But it's not some policy that will prevent Gainey from negotiating. No, it's his salary cap situation next season and the impending restricted free agency of Carey Price that will have the biggest impact on his decision-making.
As I've written before, Montreal's cap situation next year couldn't be much tighter, and the strong play of Price lately, along with Plekanec's great start, is only making it more difficult to figure out how Gainey plans on filling out his roster next season.
Let's recap quickly: Montreal has 14 players signed next season at a total cost of $45.6 million. Among those without contracts are Price, Plekanec, Glen Metropolit, Maxim Lapierre, Benoit Pouliot, Sergei Kostitsyn, Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Of those players, I think it's reasonable to believe that Mara and Bergeron likely won't be back, and as much as it kills me to say it, neither will Metropolit. Lapierre is arbitration eligible, but he doesn't have much of a leg to stand on right now, while Pouliot and Kostitsyn are not. Let's also assume (and hope) that Gainey buys out the final year of Georges Laraque's contract, which is something he should have done this past summer. Finally, let's assume the cap remains frozen at $56.8 million next season, which is a scenario that is starting to look more and more likely.
So, with Laraque's hypothetical buyout adding $1 million in cap space but also an additional roster spot to fill, the Habs should have about $12.2 million in cap room next season to sign nine or 10 players.
If Lapierre, Pouliot and Kostitsyn are all signed for about $900,000, that removes $2.7 million from that figure, leaving Gainey with another $9.5 million. If Mara and Bergeron are replaced by two guys from Hamilton, say Yannick Weber and P.K. Subban, that knocks another $1.75 million off. That would leave $7.75 million to sign Price, Plekanec, a backup goalie (assuming Jaroslav Halak is traded rather than signing another contract as a restricted free agent) and one or two more forwards to fill out the roster. If we take for granted that those role players and the backup goalie will cost about $800,000 apiece, it would leave in the neighbourhood of $5.35 million left for Price and Plekanec.
Still with me? Good, because I think it's clear to anyone who's playing attention that $5.35 million will simply not get it done in terms of signing both players, seeing as just one of them could in all likelihood command a good chunk of that extra money.
But, cap situation aside, the question needs to be asked whether or not the Canadiens are good enough to warrant this kind of extensive cap stretching, and also whether or not Plekanec is the right fit as the No. 2 (or No. 1) centre on this team moving forward.
For better or for worse - and I think it's too early to judge definitively, but it's likely for the worse - the Habs have Scott Gomez penciled in as their top line centre for the next four seasons. You can't have someone eating up $7.3 million of cap space without having him play top-line minutes.
So seeing as that is the current situation, is Plekanec the ideal second line forward? Not in my view, because his game is extremely similar to that of Gomez - small, speedy and crafty, though Plekanec has shown far more jam in his game than Gomez has. Ideally, the Habs would have a big, strong and mean second line centre to complement Gomez, but those don't grow on trees, and it doesn't appear as though Pouliot could ever become that kind of player.
The avenues for a solution to this situation are twofold, in my eyes. First is the option I floated way back in July, which would be to trade Gomez to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Vinny Lecavalier. The two players have a virtually identical cap hit (about $400K more for Lecavalier), but since Gomez's contract is front-loaded he is a far cheaper option for the cash-strapped Lightning, and Lecavalier hasn't exactly been lighting things up this season. The Lightning would save $16.5 million in real dollars over the next four years if they made this deal, not to mention that they could crawl out from under Gomez's contract six years sooner than they could with Lecavalier.
Under this scenario, re-signing Plekanec makes perfect sense because he is a different style of player than Lecavalier and therefore a better complement as a No. 2 centre, at least in my eyes. Then it would just be a question of fitting him under the cap, which would still be no easy task.
But if the Lightning don't want Gomez (or the Habs no longer want Lecavalier, or Lecavalier doesn't want to waive his no trade to come here), then I believe the next option would be to trade Plekanec at this year's deadline. His value as a player is sky high right now, and if he plays well at the Olympics - where he could be the Czech Republic's top-line centre - then it will only climb higher. The Habs could command a first-round pick and a young roster player in return that they could build around for the future, and who would be far lighter on the cap for next season.
The thought of trading Plekanec cannot be palatable to most of you, and I understand. Trust me, no one has more respect for Plekanec than I do. He works his butt off, and the old cliche of being first on the ice and last off at practice certainly applies to him. Not only that, but he was telling reporters a little while back about how he worked hard to improve the mental side of his game over the summer, and the CBC's Elliotte Friedman reports this week that Plekanec got a big pep talk from Jaromir Jagr over the summer that helped his confidence management.
I would hate to see Plekanec go, but it might be made necessary by the corner Gainey painted himself into over the summer with his free agent spending spree. And if that's not depressing enough, ask yourself what will happen when Andrei Markov's bargain of a contract is up two years from now?