MONTREAL – Tomas Plekanec will be a Montreal Canadien for a long time, and a rich one at that.
The stocky centre opted to forego unrestricted free agency to sign a US$30 million six-year contract on Tuesday. He will make $5 million each year of the deal, which includes a no-trade clause.
Plekanec had said all along he hoped to stay with Montreal, his only NHL club, and it could have been tough to find a better deal on the open market. The money and length are identical to the contract signed in March by Vancouver Canucks centre Ryan Kessler, whose numbers and defensive skills match Plekanec but who also brings a rugged style and six-foot-two frame to the rink.
The 27-year-old Plekanec, who is listed at five foot 11, led the Canadiens in scoring last season with a career-high 70 points, including 25 goals—a large boost from an off-year in 2008-09 when he had 20 goals and 39 points.
“I knew I had a bad year the previous year and I wanted to start strong, and I had a good start,” Plekanec said on a conference call from his home in Kladno, Czech Republic. “I knew I had to get stronger mentally and that’s what happened.”
The signing comes a year after Montreal acquired a trio of smaller than average forwards, inking Brian Gionta to a $25 million five-year deal, Michael Cammalleri to $30 million over five years and trading for Scott Gomez, who is now three years into a $51.5 million seven-year deal.
Plekanec, who has grown up in the Canadiens organization since he was drafted in the third round in 2001, feels he earned a payoff.
“I spent eight years in the organization and I worked through the system,” he said. “Everything I’ve accomplished in my career, I fully deserve it.
“I’m kind of happy for myself that I fought through everything. And I was really fortunate with my health. I had no (serious) injuries.”
The small stature of their most gifted forwards is considered a weakness, although the Canadiens were able to go to the NHL Eastern Conference final last season.
Plekanec and Cammalleri clicked on a line with winger Andrei Kostitsyn. He had played with Kostitsyn and now-departed winger Alex Kovalev before that.
“I wanted to prove that I could do it without Kovy,” he said. “Obviously playing with Cammalleri, and with Andrei for some of the games, was helpful for me and the team.”
Plekanec is also a strong defensive player who is adept at taking faceoffs, and turned to those skills when his scoring dried up in the playoffs. He had only four goals and seven assists in 19 post-season games.
“I’m asked to play a two-way game and I do it,” he said. “My job is the same in the playoffs—to play a two-way game and help the team win, not (just) score goals. I will do the same for another six years.”
Plekanec put in three seasons with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL before making the Canadiens to stay in 2005-06. He has scored 20 or more goals in four straight seasons, with a high of 29 in 2007-08
In 393 career NHL games, the Czech Olympian has 103 goals and 151 assists.
“I’ve been part of the organization for eight years and I have a chance to be part of it for another six years, so I know what’s it all about and I love everything about it,” he said. “There was no question of wanting to leave.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Canadiens signed fourth-line winger Mathieu Darche to a $500,000 one-year contract. The Montreal native would also have been eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1.
The moves came five days after the Canadiens were hammered by local fans and media for trading popular goaltender Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. Moving Halak, who was in for a big raise as a restricted free agent, may have helped free salary cap space to signed Plekanec.