The signs were there from the start of the season. On opening night of the NHL campaign, with the Canadiens visiting the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal bench boss Claude Julien made the decision to leave Tomas Plekanec in the press box. The veteran center had signed a one-year, $2.25-million pact in the off-season to return to what had long-been his only NHL home, the team with which he had played 981 of his 998 big-league contests at that point, and here he was, two games away from playing his 1,000th game, a healthy scratch.
The decision, Julien explained, wasn’t an easy one. He knew what Plekanec meant to the Canadiens, and that the 35-year-old — who celebrated his 36th birthday only 10 days ago — had expressed his clear desire to return to Montreal even before he had put pen to paper was one of the many reasons he had become a favorite of those who support the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. “It’s pretty obvious there are things happening with these players (in terms of milestones),” Julien said before the season opener. “But at the end of the day I think we’re all mandated to do what’s best for the team first. We can sympathize with them, but at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all here for.”
Eventually, Plekanec played that 1,000th game. He did so in front of the Canadiens’ faithful in a mid-October meeting with the Detroit Red Wings, but not before he had sat on the sidelines for another two tilts before finally cracking the game-day lineup in mid-October. But over a three-game span, Plekanec scored one goal, took eight shots, averaged less than 11 minutes of ice time and, as Montreal went back out on the road, found himself sidelined with a back injury.
Plekanec hasn’t played since, spending the past 10 games on the shelf and watching the Canadiens from a distance. And with Montreal having some success, it seemed Plekanec, no matter his status, wasn’t likely to crack the lineup anytime soon. That led to Friday’s somewhat unexpected, though not entirely surprising announcement that Plekanec has been placed on unconditional waivers for the purposes of terminating his contract, bringing to a close not only his time with the Canadiens, but his time in the NHL.
“I’d like to thank (Canadiens GM) Mark (Bergevin), (owner) Geoff (Molson) and the organization for the tremendous years I’ve spent in Montreal,” Plekanec told reporters Friday. “I really appreciate Mark, the way he approached it the last couple of days. It’s obviously hard, but I understand the decision. It’s a decision for the organization.”
Said Bergevin, placing Plekanec on unconditional waivers was about nothing more than the on-ice product, and the feeling was that the progression that had been made down the middle — be it in the development of Philip Danault, the play of Max Domi or the emergence of Jesperi Kotkaniemi — left little room for Plekanec to be an influential member of the roster. “With the progression of our players at center, I owed Tomas an explanation,” Bergevin said. “We met, and it was a mutual separation.”
There was, however, talk of a trade. According to The Athletic’s Arpon Basu, Bergevin did ask Plekanec about the possibility, but if he was to go out, Plekanec wanted it to be as a member of the Canadiens, saying he always wanted to retire in Montreal.
As he departs the Canadiens and the NHL, Plekanec finds himself in rarified air, especially given the rich history in Montreal. His 984 games with the Canadiens — his other 17 games, bringing him to 1,001 career contests, were played with the Toronto Maple Leafs as the result of a deadline deal last season — are the seventh-most in Canadiens history. His 233 goals rank 17th in franchise history. He sits 13th all-time with 373 assists. And his 606 points as a Canadien see him sandwiched between Claude Pronovost, Dickie Moore, Mats Naslund and Elmer Lach in the franchise ledger.
The whole of Plekanec’s contributions won’t appear in any record book, however. His greatest attributes weren’t his offensive talents, though he was a seven-time 20-goal man in Montreal. Rather, Plekanec left his mark with his two-way acumen, a responsible pivot who finished top 15 in Selke Trophy voting four times in his career. His best finish was seventh in 2013-14. Beyond his 200-foot play, though, Plekanec will be remembered as a constant presence for a generation. From his full-season debut in Montreal in 2005-06 through to the trade that sent him packing in 2017-18, he played upwards of 200 more games with the Canadiens than any other player, scored nearly 150 more points and led the organization in goals and assists.
Plekanec’s departure from Montreal and the NHL may not be the end of the road, though. He told reporters that he may use this opportunity to return to the Czech Republic. So, hey, who knows, maybe the next time we hear from Plekanec, he’ll be playing alongside another of Kladno’s favorite sons, Jaromir Jagr, for the hometown team.