MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens are still dealing with the surprise of hearing their general manager was stepping down, but one of their key players was pleased with the message sent by the man taking his place.
New GM Pierre Gauthier announced in his first press conference Monday that a dialogue had been opened with the Habs’ leading scorer Tomas Plekanec, an impending unrestricted free agent.
A day later, Plekanec said it was comforting news when his agent Rick Curran informed him that a conversation had taken place with Gauthier.
“That’s nice to know that they talked, they had a one-on-one phone call and talked about what our position is and what their position is,” Plekanec said after practice Tuesday. “It’s nice to know and we’ll see how it works out.”
Plekanec was clear, however, that it did not mean the Canadiens had entered into negotiations with him.
“I don’t think they have really started yet,” he said. “It was just one phone call. So we’ll see.”
Plekanec was 18th in the NHL in points entering Tuesday night’s games, with 15 goals and 43 assists. Among players who will become unrestricted free agents on July 1, only San Jose’s Patrick Marleau and New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk had more points than Plekanec, who also plays a dual role as Montreal’s best penalty-killer.
If he were allowed to hit the open market, Plekanec would likely at least double his US$2.75 million salary.
But he says he would rather not go down that road.
“If we can agree on everything, I would be more than happy to stay here and play for the Montreal Canadiens,” he said. “I love it here, it’s my second home. I don’t see myself right now playing somewhere else.”
Another area where Gauthier showed his cards was his plan to keep both his young goalies at the trade deadline, taking a heap of pressure off the shoulders of both Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price.
Head coach Jacques Martin was relieved that it would not serve as a distraction to the team leading up to the March 3 deadline.
“I think that was good of Pierre, and I think he spoke with both individuals,” Martin said. “I’ve always said that we feel that’s the strength of our hockey team, to have two netminders that can do the job, to have a healthy competition.”
After Tuesday’s practice, Canadiens players got a chance to talk about Gainey’s surprise departure, news they learned via conference call just before Monday’s news conference.
“I only have good memories from him, everyone knows he has huge respect from the whole league,” said star defenceman Andrei Markov, one of only two players on the team that was not acquired under Gainey’s watch. “He brought a lot of positive things to our club. It’s tough to believe right now that he’s not the GM of the team anymore.”
Defenceman Josh Gorges said Gainey was more than a boss, but rather someone a player could go to with just about any problem.
“Even though he ultimately had all the power here, he was a guy that anyone could walk up to and talk to,” said Gorges, who Gainey acquired in a trade from San Jose at the 2007 deadline. “He was very easily approachable, he was very personable. You could ask him about anything, whether it had to do with hockey or your personal life. He genuinely cares about this organization and the people that belong to it.”
Unfortunately, those people keep falling prey to injuries.
The list got a little longer Tuesday with the news that power-play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron would miss at least six weeks with a knee injury. Recently-acquired sniper Benoit Pouliot will also not return before the Olympic break due to an upper-body injury.
Their absence has drastic consequences on the Canadiens second-ranked power play, forcing Martin to load up all his healthy bodies on one unit and hope for the best. Even if it means playing Plekanec and fellow centre Scott Gomez together up front.
“It means we’ll have to put some (other) players on the second unit like (David) Desharnais, (Glen) Metropolit and (Mathieu) Darche and hope they can contribute,” Martin said. “But it opens an opportunity for other players as well.”
With Bergeron, Pouliot, Michael Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn all injured for Wednesday night’s home game against the powerhouse Washington Capitals, the Canadiens will be missing nearly 40 per cent of their scoring.
The Canadiens have a 1-1-1 record against Washington this year, but Martin says his team will have to adjust to its lack of offensive punch to have any hope of halting the Capitals 14-game winning streak.
“It’s not a team we want to get into a wide open game with,” he said. “We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and play well without the puck.”