Friday, January 1, 2010

The "policy" put to the test

Yes, this is New Year's Day, but most importantly in the eyes of many Canadiens fans this is the first day GM Bob Gainey is allowed to negotiate a new contract with Tomas Plekanec, should he feel so inclined.

When Plekanec signed his one-year contract for $2.75 million back on July 21, I titled my story "Plekanec to play for his payday" because the one year on his deal got him to unrestricted free agency. Some were baffled as to how a 39-point season could translate into such a generous salary, though I thought at the time that Gainey only slightly overpaid to keep Plekanec away from arbitration.

In retrospect it's a good thing he did, because there's no way Plekanec would be the least bit inclined to give the Habs a hometown discount if that arbitration hearing had gone ahead as planned nine days after his signing. And I think everyone has to come to the realization that if Plekanec is going to be re-signed, it will have to come at a pretty significant discount to what he could fetch on the open market.

Plekanec said in Florida this week that he likes it in Montreal, that he considers it a second home and that he would love to stay here. His agent Rick Curran told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun on Boxing Day that he had no idea if Gainey would be picking up a phone to trigger negotiations this week, but he did note that Gainey has always been a big supporter of his client's (I'm assuming he means other than that time he decided to make Plekanec a healthy scratch in Game 2 of last year's playoff sweep against the Bruins. But I digress).

However, one thing that jumped out to me in Curran's comments was his use of the word "policy" to describe Gainey's willingness to talk contract during the season. Gainey himself was directly asked about this about a month ago when discussing the Guillaume Latendresse trade (which is starting to look pretty darned good with the way Benoit Pouliot is playing. Could you ever imagine seeing #84 on the PK? But again, I digress).

Gainey refuted the suggestion that he had a hard and fast rule against negotiating contracts mid-season, saying he only decided to handle things that way last season when half his team was looking for new contracts. That made sense then to avoid conflicts inside the room, but it wouldn't make that much sense now seeing as Plekanec is the only significant unrestricted free agent on the team (no offence to Glen Metropolit). He noted that he did talk contract with a previous free agent during the season, surely alluding to Mark Streit, and he did not deny that he might do the same with Plekanec. The only thing he made absolutely clear was that he would not be negotiating through the media, which is how some other GMs choose to operate (hello Don Waddell, that one was pointed at you).

As Plekanec continues showing no signs of relenting, pulling no-look OT winners out from under his hat, you have to start wondering whether or not he would even want to sign a contract before July 1. I don't know Curran at all, never spoken to him in my life. But I have to assume the guy is no dummy, and he can see a perfect storm brewing for he and his client this summer.

To give you an idea of what free agency may hold for Plekanec, consider this: he is the leading scorer among impending unrestricted free agents this summer. Yes, Ilya Kovalchuk would definitely command more money and years, but among the forwards hitting the market, I'm not sure anyone else would be more sought after than Plekanec. Patrick Marleau could be, if he keeps this up through the playoffs and has a strong Olympics, but otherwise you have Olli Jokinen, Alexander Frolov, Alex Tanguay, Colby Armstrong and the Maple Leafs trio of Lee Stempniak, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan as the rest of the impact forwards available who are under 35 years of age. And I realize I am stretching the definition of the word "impact" in a big way.

Among that group, would Plekanec not be in line for a huge payday on July 1, especially when you consider his dual role as an elite playmaker and penalty-killer? Plekanec has to know this, and in case he doesn't, he needn't look far for an example of what happens to a player who hits the market at the right time.

Sitting way on the opposite end of the Habs locker room from Plekanec's stall is one Scott Gomez, currently in year three of a seven-year, $51.5 million deal signed by the New York Rangers in the summer of 2007. One look at that fabled 2007 free agent class will give you an idea why Gomez was able to land such a ridiculous deal in the first place.

Joining Gomez on the free agent front that summer were Buffalo co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, and it was instantly determined that these were the top three centres available. Combined, they managed to pull in nearly $139 million on Canada Day (eight years, $52 million for Briere, and five years, $35.25 million for Drury).

I'm no economist, far from it, but I believe this is the nature of supply and demand in a free market economy. When there is little supply of high end talent, and said talent is willing to go to the highest bidder, prices will naturally increase. Those left grasping at the straws left behind at the centre position in 2007 included the Los Angeles Kings who gave Michal Handzus a four-year deal worth $16 million, and the Washington Capitals who gave Michael Nylander a four-year, $19.5 million contract.

Considering all five of the contracts listed here are seen as crippling errors today, you might be thinking that GMs have learned from their mistakes and will not repeat the same ones in 2010, when the free agent pickings will be far slimmer than they were three years earlier. If you believe that to be true, then you are truly delusional.

So, where does that leave us with Plekanec's value, or even in determining a starting point for discussions should either side choose to engage in them? Nowhere, because there are very few players Plekanec can be compared to. He sits fourth in the NHL in shorthanded time on ice, and among the leaders there are a few people who have a comparable skill set in the offensive end. Jordan Staal, eighth in SH ice time, is making $4 million for the next four years, but he was a restricted free agent when he signed that contract. There's Drury, whose ninth in the league, and there's Marleau who sits 22nd. Marleau is the bargain of the two at $6.3 million in the final year of his contract.

In terms of age and abilities, I feel the best comparison may be Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks. He, like Plekanec, was 27 when he signed a four-year, $15.6 million contract in 2008 coming off a career-best 36-goal, 62-point season. Ottawa's Mike Fisher was 28 that same year when he signed a five-year, $21 million deal. Both those players have a nice mix of offensive upside and defensive awareness that could serve as ways to keep Plekanec's contract down a bit, because if he were to sign for $4.5 million a year it would have to be considered a huge bargain.

When you delve a little deeper into Plekanec's 46 points through 43 games, it becomes even clearer how valuable a player he is becoming. He is one of only nine centres in the NHL to be averaging a point a game or better, and of those only one, Marleau, is a free agent this summer. His 18 points on the power play ranks tied for fifth in the NHL, but his 28 even strength points place him 11th in the league, showing he is not a one-trick pony like a certain #27 we all used to know and love. He has more points on the road (26) than he does at home (20), and only Joe Thornton (30) and Alex Ovechkin (27) have more points on enemy ice than Plekanec.

Whether or not Plekanec can maintain this throughout the season remains to be seen, but he's shown nothing to this point that says he won't. His longest pointless streak so far this season has been three games, and he's only done that once. Three other times Plekanec went as many as two games without a point. That kind of consistency generally doesn't come from a flash in the pan type of player.

So, with all this working in his favour, can anyone find any reason whatsoever why Curran would advise his client to sign a contract offer from Gainey before the end of the season? Well, there are a few reasons out there. First of all, if Plekanec genuinely loves the city and the organization, there is something to be said for that. It's possible he would never succeed anywhere else, like legions of free agent departures before him, starting with the guy sitting in that stall at the opposite end of his own locker room. So maybe Plekanec would be willing to sacrifice a few million dollars for the security of continuity, but how many millions could he stomach leaving on the table?

The biggest factor for me would be to get his name on a long-term deal before the playoffs, or even the stretch drive when the games become more competitive and physically intense. Plekanec had nine points in 12 playoff games two years ago, which is when he gave his now infamous "I'm playing like a little girl out there" quote. Not a bad performance when looking at the numbers, but he had four of those points in the final three games, showing it took some time for him to adjust to the intensity level of the post-season. Last year, he was shutout in his three games, but that was just a fitting end to a nightmare season for both he and his teammates.

A reputation as a playoff underachiever is sometimes handed out a bit unfairly, but once it is attached to you, it is a hard one to shake. I don't think Plekanec has that reputation right now, but if his performance were to dip in the postseason this year it may become a question GMs will start asking themselves.

Finally, one more reason why he might want to grab the money early from Montreal is the cap situation around the league. Over half the teams in the league, 16 to be exact, have already committed in excess of $40 million to next season's payroll. They are the Bruins ($44.6 million for 12 players), Sabres ($44 million, 14 players), Flames ($44.9 million, 15 players), Hurricanes ($42 million, 14 players), Blackhawks ($60.7 million, 15 players), Blue Jackets ($47.6 million, 18 players), Red Wings ($40.7 million, 13 players), Oilers ($44.2 million, 13 players), Panthers ($45.3 million, 15 players), Kings ($46.1 million, 18 players), Canadiens ($44.9 million, 13 players), Devils ($44 million, 15 players), Rangers ($48.6 million, 15 players), Senators ($48.9 million, 15 players), Flyers ($47.1 million, 14 players) and Penguins ($41 million, 13 players).

There are other teams out there, like the Thrashers, Coyotes and Predators, to name a few, who have no intention of ever getting near the cap and work under an internal budget. Some of the team listed above are in good shape because they have a lot of their key players signed, and therefore could afford to spend some money on free agents this summer. But others will want to keep some wiggle room to deal with some of their own future free agents, such as the Kings who will be looking at Drew Doughty entering the final year of his entry level deal.

So in this financial landscape, Curran and Plekanec may want to hedge their bets and take the sure thing from Montreal, even if it is as much as $2 million a year less than what could be out there come July 1. The question is, of course, whether or not Gainey will reach out to his star player to get him signed, and whether or not Gainey believes that star player to be Plekanec or Carey Price.

The other question is whether or not Gainey feels he can sign both Plekanec and Price, which is why I've been saying for some time now that perhaps it is time to start exploring the trade market to see what Plekanec is worth. Others, like Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, may feel it would be a good time to trade Price and sign Plekanec, which is fair. I just don't see Gainey abandoning his "thoroughbred" like that, and I still believe Price's ceiling is way higher than either Plekanec or Jaroslav Halak.

But whether Plekanec is traded or not, it is becoming increasingly clear that he is going to hit the jackpot at some point this year. I'm just wondering if he is another Gomez in the making, hitting the unrestricted free agent market at just the right time.

5 comments:

kyleroussel said...

Man, this is a good piece, Arpon. I wish I could comment, but you've covered everything so well.

I guess we can ask ourselves what Gainey may be able to get in return for Plekanec, and what next year's team would look like without him (of course we can't be entirely sure). Are we confident that Gainey can add some badly needed skill to a team that would consist of Gomez, Lapierre, and perhaps Metropolit at center? With a limited budget, and only Marleau as a suitable (albeit more expensive and thus prohibitive) replacement, you have to think that Gainey would have no choice but to bring back a young, cheap center in return, one that can be considered a future building block for the team. Failing that, he would have no other choice but to sign him, would he not?

john deere said...

Excellent article Arpon. I agree with your assessment of Gainey keeping Price.

I have mused about the Plekanec contract for a couple of weeks now and to me the only thing that makes sense for Montreal would be for a 10 or 11 year contract in the $40 million dollar range. That would allow for a couple of years at $5 million per at the start and a couple of cap friendly years at the end.

One thing I notice is that no one is talking about is the future direction that the new ownership group is going to take Les Habs - which may force a lot of the decisions that Gainey(?) may have to make. Maybe by this summer we will have a better idea.

john deere said...

I went over the centres at nhlnumbers.com and it seems to me that there is only five teams that would potentially bid on Plekanec (other teams would have to dump a centre under contract first) and that would be the Ducks, the Rangers, the Leafs, the Oilers and the Capitals. The rest of the teams surprisingly have some depth at centre and many of them wouldn't need him or couldn't afford him anyways - Tampa and Pittsburg to name a few. If Montreal were to take a centre back in trade then probably a lot more teams would be interested.

I think for Plekanec his trouble will be that he hasn't been consistent point-wise long enough, he doesn't have brand recognition and teams will be looking to slot him as their number two centre, which isn't good for getting a big contract.

Steven said...

I think it is about time that we realize that Price might not be the saviour everyone expected. Look at what Halak has achieved so far in his career with the support he got and it might be time to let him go. the best example of Price for me is the goal he let go against the Devils a mix of nonchalance and non concentration... Id rather go with Plekanec and halak than just Price alone....

john deere said...

Steven ... if you had a choice between Gomez and Halak or Plekanec and Price which would you choose? Assuming both combos come in at a similar cap number and trading Halak and Gomez would yield considerably less in return than trading Plekanec and Price?