Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Plekanec Gets Fair Deal From Habs, Not From Fans

Tomas Plekanec has avoided the nasty business of arbitration by agreeing to a deal with Bob Gainey and the Canadiens worth an estimated $2.75 million for a single year.

From reading around the topic, I can anticipate that many of you might not agree when I say that this was a very good deal for the Canadiens. I suppose, I'll have to explain myself.

First, I don't think fans have been altogether fair with Plekanec; and I think they have directed some of their overwhelming frustration at a 5-year plan on reload at the Czech.

How, for instance, can one justify saying (Mike Boone, HI/O):
"How badly do you have to suck before it shows up in your salary?"

Or (Habs Fan4, FHF):
More mediocrity for a year...

...Salary: Too high.

Or (Robert L, EOTP):
"For myself, the deal is a little lofty for a player who has regressed. It seems he's being paid for a great season in 2007-08, and not the one he had last season."

The consensus among the opinion makers is that his salary is too high. The commenters fall on either side, but swing to the opinion coming down from the top.

I think it's a little bit unfair when you consider Plekanec's career up to this point. Or how he actually played in games where he didn't score points. Or put it into the context of the other players in the league.

Plekanec's season

From a statistical standpoint on the very last day of the season, yes you can look back and say that Plekanec's season was a bit of a nightmare. But taking into account the erosion of our memories and the fact that statistics tell some, but not always the whole story, it's worth a look back at Plekanec's season.

What I remember about #14's season can be summed up in two themes: slump and consistent high level of play. Now, I don't think it's a paradox to put these two terms together. His slumps were statistical and his play was real. Perhaps he was unlucky, perhaps he had funny timing, but the reason for his lower totals was not really a dramatic fall in the level of his effort or even in the level of his play from the previous season.

Luckily for me the internet is around to cache all that was written about Plekanec over the season. I was particularly interested to show some idea of how he played in games where he didn't score points. In all Pleks made the dome on 24 occasions this season, and a third of those times came in games in which he didn't get recorded in the goal or assist column. On two occasions, he was the star of the game for us at LIW in statistical shutouts. Particularly notable was Game 66, in which he led the Habs to their first win in what then seemed like eons. Here's what we said then:
Pleks was our bet penalty-killer tonight and was very effective during the 5-on-3s. In all he played over 5 minutes of short-handed hockey and was very energetic for most of it. Aside from that he played a solid game which include a team lead in shots (3) and a very respectable 10-7 face-off record.

He played well with Kovy again tonight, but I think MaxPac added a little more energy to their line which slightly improved their overall make-up. All 3 players were quite dangerous offensively, but it was Tomas that had the most chances - he came very close in the 2nd to beating Turco on a wrap-around.

It's rather representative of his season actually, as the game was one where he played the full length of the ice, killed penalties like a star and yet garnered a zero for us all to look at in the game log.

Now I'm not saying that he had a brilliant season. Not by a long shot. But let's remember we're talking about $2.75 million here, not $7.37 million. Often our best penalty killer, one of two remaining 20-goalscorers and always true with his effort. I think what I mentioned in his mid-season evaluation holds true for me at this point:
No longer a rookie, but a veteran, his ability to commit to team winning in times of costly slump (for that new contract), speaks of his value to the team.

The Robert Lang effect

Apart from the question of what happened, there's the question of why it happened.

One theory, and certanly one with many adherents at the moment, is that Tomas digressed because he actually got worse. Obviously, I don't agree otherwise I wouldn't waste my time writing this. Another theory is that something on the team changed that affected Tomas in some way.

I don't intend to make excuses for a loss of thirty points, but I don't think it's all down to the individual here. To a certain extent, I think Plekanec suffered from not being one of only two options. I think his stats suffered from having Robert Lang around. When trigger-happy Carbonneau didn't see Plekanec on the scoresheet in 3 straight periods, he'd promptly change the way his team was deployed.

The place I feel this most affect Plekanec was in PP ice time and points. Last season, Plekanec racked up 12 goals and 25 points on the PP, this season those numbers fell to 6 goals and 12 points. As per, his ice time 18 months ago was averaging about 3.38 minutes per game. This season he was down at 2.94 minutes a contest. What's more, when he did get time, it was on the second unit for the most part; whereas the previous campaign saw him rolling out on the top line of the best PP in the league.

The PP doesn't explain away his 3 or 4 extended slumps, but let's be honest if we were sitting here looking at 26 goals and 26 assists (which is what you get by just adding back his PP point missed) then the critics wouldn't be in the majority.

In context, he's cheap

Even if you don't buy all that stuff, it's still helpful, Habs fans, to look at this signing in context. Particularly in the context that an arbitrator would have done. For the statistically-inclined this will be the more interesting find.

There are 127 forwards in the league who will be paid more than Tomas Plekanec next season, and probably a few more once Tanguay and co. sign. That means that if the league had true parity and all teams paid for talent properly, Tomas would fall into a highly paid 5th forward category – at least based on pay.

That alone makes his signing a good one. But consider his goalscoring statistics for a minute.

Of the 130 forwards to be paid $2.75 million or more, only 120 have scored 20 goals at one juncture over the past three seasons. Tomas has scored 20 goals in three straight seasons, something that is matched by only 42 other players in the group.

By now you critics will be saying: "Yes, but those are the overpaid players. There are plenty of bargains out there that outperform Plekanec".

I'm one step ahead. You're right critics in thinking that there are lower paid players out there. In fact, 24 players that scored 20 goals this past season will be getting less that the $2.75m allotted to Pleks. But beware, 7 of those are on their first contracts (Berglund, etc.) and several of them are older men taking pay cuts for one reason or another. What's more is it really fair to peg Tomas based on his worst season in three, when it might well be the anomalous result?

I don't think it is, so I consider multiple seasons. With that filter, there are only 4 players who are not yet signed to contracts of lower value than Plekanec who have scored more goals in the past 3 years. One is a free agent and played with Crosby (Petr Sykora) and the other three are definitely on the downslope of their careers (Selanne, Guerin and Tkachuk). All others are either signed to more money than Plekanec or simply don't come close to the consistent 20-goal man tag that Tomas has now earned.

So you see, when taken in context, Tomas Plekanec is just about the cheapest consistent 20 goalscorer around – a much better investment than many teams have made (e.g., $4+ million for PM Bouchard, or $3.53 million for Jochen Hecht).

Why did Gainey bend?

All this is nice for fans, but let's face it, it's not new information. It was known in June when Gainey could have made an offer. It was known for the past three weeks of the Gomez era. Why did Gainey decide to bend on the very eve of arbitration then?

The Canadiens signing this deal at a significant raise shows me who was holding the leverage going into the arbitration. I think Plekanec and his agent were right to think that they did. Gainey probably moved up from his low offer and was able to make the deal by allowing the deal to expire at season's end. It was the right thing to do as Gainey will not find another centre that even approaches Plekanec's scoring abilities on the open market at this point for the same price, nor will he find anyone within the organization that could handle the remit of a top two line.

I suspect that Bob might also have anticipated a pretty disheartening loss in the arbitrator's court, despite a down season by Pleks. I only looked at the numbers for some players for a morning and I recognise that Plekanec might have been in line to out-earn Grabovski, Zubrus and Fredrik Modin.

Gainey also needed to get this done at a number lower than the contract handed to Saku Koivu. He needed to do that to save his PR for the season – a record that is already in tatters in many quarters.

Another signing to the good and another day closer to play. Even so, i think we'll run out of news before we run out of time...

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