The Maple Leafs have responded to the Bruins’ Rick Nash addition by bringing Tomas Plekanec in from the Canadiens in exchange for Kerby Rychel, Rinat Valiev and a 2018 second-round pick.
With Boston making a splash ahead of the deadline and acquiring Rick Nash from the New York Rangers early Sunday morning, the expectation was other Atlantic Division contenders would likewise dip into the rental market before the trade freeze came into effect, and it certainly didn’t take the Toronto Maple Leafs long to respond to the Bruins’ move.
In a move made to further their depth down the middle, the Maple Leafs announced a swap with the rival Montreal Canadiens Sunday afternoon that sees long-tenured Hab Tomas Plekanec and minor-leaguer Kyle Baun — a throw-in in the deal — heading to Toronto in exchange for Rinat Valiev, Kerby Rychel and a second-round pick in the upcoming draft. As part of the deal, the Canadiens also retained half of Plekanec’s $6-million contract, the maximum allowable under league rules.
Plekanec’s fit on the Maple Leafs is a no-brainer, too. While a few teams, most notably the Winnipeg Jets, were interested in bringing the 35-year-old in as a third-line center, Plekanec will offer even more depth and versatility to a Toronto roster that already boasts (the presently-injured-but-soon-to-return) Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak down the middle. Plekanec will thus give Maple Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock the option of running either Bozak or Plekanec on the third line with the other as a fourth-line pivot. Not only does that give Toronto more depth of scoring at the center position, it provides the Maple Leafs with a sizeable upgrade on Dominic Moore on the bottom line. And while his offensive heyday is undoubtedly behind him, Plekanec’s six goals, 24 points and playmaking ability definitely outranks Moore, who has five goals and 11 points this season.
It should also be said that Plekanec’s value exceeds playing bottom-six minutes at even strength. In Montreal this season, he was the most heavily utilized penalty kill forward, averaging more than two minutes per game while down a skater. Plekanec could make an already strong Maple Leafs special teams unit that much better, and a strong kill in the post-season can be invaluable.
The salary retention in the deal is also significant in that it allows Toronto to add further pieces at the deadline. With Plekanec’s full salary on the books, Toronto would have eaten up almost every last dollar available to them ahead of the deadline, meaning any further trades would have had to be of the dollar-in, dollar-out variety. Instead, the Maple Leafs now have upwards of $3 million in cap space at the deadline. That could pay dividends as they attempt to bolster their roster to challenge the Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning come the post-season.
As for Montreal, their haul in the deal isn’t necessarily a king’s ransom, but it’s a decent return for the aging rental center. Rychel, 23, has long been mentioned in trade talk and the 2013 first-round selection — he was taken 19th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets — could become a roster player for the retooling Canadiens in short order. Rychel, a power forward, has spent his time exclusively with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies this season, scoring 10 goals and 30 points in 55 games. He does, however, have 37 NHL games under his belt, over which time he registered two goals and 12 points. Meanwhile, Valiev, a rearguard selected in third round, 68th overall, by Toronto in 2014, has 10 big league games on his resume, but has spent the majority of his pro career in the AHL. Across 149 games with the Marlies, he has scored 12 goals and 59 points. He has NHL size — he stands 6-foot-3, 215 pounds — but the 22-year-old, while he has upside, is likely still be a fringe player at this stage of his development.
The kicker in the deal is the second-round pick, though it will almost assuredly fall late in the round. That said, Montreal now has four selections in the second round, previously acquiring the Chicago Blackhawks’ and Washington Capitals’ second-round picks. With five picks in the first two rounds, the Canadiens could quickly restock the cupboard or potentially package selections to move up if there’s a player they covet at the upcoming draft. And Montreal — as well as Toronto, for that matter — might not be done their deadline dealing yet.
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