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Top Shelf: Habs must pony up for Plekanec

Tomas Plekanec leads the Canadiens with 24 points in 19 games. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Tomas Plekanec leads the Canadiens with 24 points in 19 games. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

There was a ton of free agent movement in Montreal last summer, what with the team letting several core players fly the coop and replacing them with the likes of Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta.

But the best signing Montreal made last summer might also turn out to be the worst if a contract extension isn’t worked out for center Tomas Plekanec.

One of many Canadiens to turn in a sub-par 2008-09 campaign, Plekanec inked a one-year, $2.75-million deal as a restricted free agent in the off-season. He is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next July 1 and Habs GM Bob Gainey needs to make sure his most consistent player never sets skate on the open market.

Gainey’s stated policy is to leave contract negotiations for after the season, but if you’re sure you want a player to be part of your team long-term, why not extend the olive branch earlier in hopes of tickling the athlete’s ego a bit?

(Don’t look now Habs fans, but Andrei Markov’s contract is up at the end of 2010-11, meaning Gainey really needs to get his renegotiate on next summer if he wants to avoid potentially losing the team’s best player.)

With Markov out of the lineup, Plekanec has been the premier Hab this year, leading the team with five goals and 24 points in 24 games. A point-per-game pace is always impressive, but Plekanec’s production is all the more laudable when you consider he’s had a revolving door of underachieving linemates on the Canadiens’ second trio.

Plekanec would be pushing up toward 30 points, right behind the league leaders, if he was inserted between Cammalleri and Gionta (before he got hurt, obviously) in place of Scott Gomez.

Anybody who’s watched his development over the past few seasons can tell you the crafty Czech boasts a wide array of skills. Not one element of his game blows you away, but he does a lot of things at a high level. He’s not a sniper, but given the chance he can crank an accurate, hard shot. He’s not a front-line playmaker, but his 19 assists this season speak for themselves. He has a modest 5-foot-11, 197-pound frame, but does as much backin’ down as Tom Petty.

Best of all, Plekanec is the kind of player who gives you something even when he’s not getting points. In recent seasons the Habs have been littered with guys who offer nothing beyond exactly what they contribute to the scoresheet – you know, the Alex Kovalevs, Alex Tanguays and Michael Ryders of the world.

Plekanec isn’t of that cut; he kills penalties, blocks shots and generally embraces each shift as an opportunity to show the world his stuff.

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Lyle Richardson, who writes THN.com’s Rumor Roundup and runs Spector’s Hockey, expects Plekanec’s salary demands to be upwards of $4 million per season. Given all the attributes he brings, a five-year deal worth $20 million should come with as little thought as investing $20 million in anything can.

A headier move, however, may have been trying to get Plekanec under long-term contract last summer, when he had significantly less leverage. I’m certainly not privy to the details of the negotiations between Gainey and his player, but if the GM had come to him with a four-year deal worth $3.5 million per on the heals of Plekanec’s 39-point down year, don’t you think the player would have snapped it up?

Certainly you can see the logic in getting a guy who followed a good year (69 points in 2007-08) with a bad year one more season to determine the path of his career. By the same token, NHL management types have to make hard evaluations, especially in a salary cap system.

If you’ve witnessed the grab bag of good things Plekanec brings and fully believe he can return to at least 65-point form, don’t you feel confident committing to him for the prime seasons of his career?

It will cost a little more to do that now, but it shouldn’t for one second deter Gainey from inking Plekanec long before his unfettered look at free agency.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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