Tomas Plekanec caused a fair amount of panic in Habsland recently, and he probably had no idea he was doing it either.
First came his early departure from Monday's practice and the subsequent call-up of Ben Maxwell later that afternoon. Speculation ran rampant on Twitter the rest of the day and into the night as to what could possibly be wrong with him. That kind of hysteria is pretty justified, however, because if anything could put a crink in the Habs mojo these days, losing Plekanec would definitely do that.
But he was the first player on the ice at the Habs morning skate the next day, as is his habit, and all was well in Habsland again.
Until, that is, an RDS news item that Plekanec and the Canadiens will not negotiate until the end of the season caused an even greater panic later that afternoon, even though ESPN's Pierre LeBrun had reported exactly the same thing two days earlier.
This sent some people off the rails, thinking it meant the Canadiens would lose yet another player that they developed to the evils of free agency (an avenue the Habs have used to acquire nine members of the current team).
Why people jumped to this conclusion, I'm not so sure, because both reports stated that the talks were going well, with agent Rick Curran using the term "positive" in both reports. This just isn't the time of year to be talking contract. TSN's Darren Dreger later reported that it would be difficult for the Canadiens to negotiate without first knowing what next year's cap figure will be, while also mentioning he believes an agreement will eventually be reached.
If the Canadiens make the Stanley Cup final and it goes to seven games, the last possible day they will be playing would be June 18, which would still allow 12 days to negotiate a new contract. That's more than enough time. Of course, I think we all know they will likely have far more time than that (because the Habs would sweep the Cup final, of course).
It's possible that both sides might have thought something would get done over the Olympic break, and then at the GM's meetings in Florida where Pierre Gauthier and Curran met for several hours. But I think it's the financial uncertainty that Dreger mentioned that hindered that outcome, because even though Gauthier doesn't believe the Canadiens cap situation is a tenuous one, it really is.
So let's just recap where the Canadiens are when it comes to July 1. In addition to Plekanec, Glen Metropolit, Dominic Moore, Mathieu Darche, Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron are all going to be unrestricted free agents. Among the restricted free agents we have Carey Price, Jaroslav Halak, Benoit Pouliot, Sergei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre, Tom Pyatt and others.
There's also about $45 million already tied up in 13 players next season, so there's no doubt Gauthier will have his hands full, whether he thinks so or not.
While a lot of people are trying to figure out how Plekanec will be signed when there are all those other players to take care of as well, I believe Gauthier is thinking the opposite way. Once Plekanec is taken care of, he'll see how much he has left over to sign everyone else.
But just how much will it take to sign him? That's a tricky one.
I made an extensive stab at the problem on New Year's Day, back when Plekanec was among the league's leading scorers. He's no longer in the same elite company scoring-wise, but he remains a case with few - if any - decent comparables. I had mentioned Mike Fisher and Patrick Sharp as being two of the best ones, with a salary range of $3.9 million to $4.25 million. But the most perfect one can't be used as a comparison at all, and that's Minnesota's Mikko Koivu.
Plekanec is third among NHL forwards in shifts per game with 27.4, while Koivu is eighth with 26.3. Both are used extensively on the penalty kill and power play and both have similar production numbers this season (65 points for Plekanec, 63 points for Koivu). While Koivu is far more efficient in the faceoff circle (57.4 per cent to 48.5 per cent), both are in the top-six in the NHL for number of faceoffs taken.
Koivu has a cap hit of $3.25 million. Sounds like a steal, right? Well, it is, because that is Koivu's second contract, signed as a restricted free agent, and therefore it cannot be used as a comparable for Plekanec. But you can bet the Wild's management and Koivu's agent will be very curious to see what the Habs do with Plekanec this summer. So will Ryan Kesler's agent and the Vancouver Canucks.
I could continue doing this for hours, which is what I think Curran and Gauthier did in Florida. But the fact is there is not one single player out there you can use to help establish Plekanec's value, one who is out-scoring $7 million men like Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier yet who is also an elite defensive player and penalty killer who is also hitting the unrestricted free agent market.
In my mind, Fisher's contract with Ottawa is the best comparison, and when adjusted for inflation you could come to a figure of $5 million per year on a five or six-year deal. I'm sure Curran is looking for more than that, and I'm sure Gauthier isn't even sure yet if he can offer it.
But if there's one thing the cap world has taught us is that teams have to enjoy the success of this year before worrying about the next one. Which means, if your team is on a six-game winning streak for the first time in four years, you should bask in its glow and not worry about what will happen to this player or that player at the end of the season.
That's someone else's job.