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Tomas Plekanec is an excellent addition for the Maple Leafs

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Plekanec’s arrival will make Babcock lethal in the matchup game.

NHL: Boston Bruins at Montreal Canadiens
Expect Plekanec to take plenty of key defensive zone faceoffs down the stretch.
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today, the Maple Leafs acquired centre Tomas Plekanec from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Kerby Rychel, Rinat Vailev, and Toronto’s 2018 2nd round pick. AHL Defenceman Kyle Baun was also in the deal, and you can read about this here.

As a former Habs fan, I have probably watched Plekanec play close to 500 times, and it’s going to be awfully weird to watch him play in a Leafs jersey. He’s a former 70 point player, plays tough minutes, and scored 54 points as recently as the 2015-2016 season. Although he’s not quite as fast as his former self, he is still used against top competition, and he’s been hurt by a 4.8% shooting percentage this year.

I’ve been on the Plekanec-to-Toronto train for a while now. Given that the Leafs will likely have to face Boston, Tampa Bay, and one of Pittsburgh or Washington to make the finals, trading a first round pick for a rental makes little sense. Still, I expected Toronto’s front office to make an addition in order to provide the team with a boost, just like the Brian Boyle acquisition last season. This signals to the team that the front office believes they can win, without surrendering a major asset.

Analyzing Plekanec’s Fit On The Maple Leafs

559 players have played at least 400 minutes at 5 on 5 this season, and per Corsica’s TOI% QOC data, no player has played against easier competition than Dominic Moore. Mike Babcock did not seem to trust him against the opposition’s top players. Moore averaged just ten and a half minutes of ice time per game.

Plekanec is used to playing in a shutdown role, and leads Montreal’s forwards in shorthanded time on ice this season. Per Natural Stat Trick, he’s spent most of his 5 on 5 time this season on a line with Brendan Gallagher, followed by Charles Hudon, Paul Byron, and Artturi Lehkonen; rather than Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, or Jonathan Drouin. He will not carry a line offensively, but he’s known as a dependable two-way centre, and he remains a talented playmaker.

Once Matthews returns, Plekanec could slot in between Leo Komarov and Kasperi Kapanen. At first glance, this line clearly would not be limited to playing against opposing fourth lines, and Babcock could look to win the matchup game by playing this unit in tougher situations. In particular, Babcock could match Plekanec against other third lines, and let James van Riemsdyk rack up goals against other teams’ worst forwards. There’s plenty of flexibility here.

Tomas Plekanec By The Numbers

In terms of shot attempt differential, Plekanec has posted a positive Rel CF% in each of the last four seasons. His team tends to outshoot their opponents when he is on the ice, and this is an encouraging sign for a player who is used to playing relatively tough minutes.

His main issue in recent years has been his scoring production. He has not surpassed 1.2 primary points per 60 minutes in the last three seasons, which is right around the career numbers for both Connor Brown and Zach Hyman. We can expect a player who can hold his own in the defensive end, but he could stand to play with a linemate who can drive play in the offensive end.

His shooting percentage is killing his numbers, as its been under 8% in each of the last three seasons. This is likely a combination of poor shooting talent and bad luck, and its worth pointing out that Plekanec could score around 15 goals per season with an average shooting percentage.

Where Does Plekanec Slot In?

The Leafs are now a four line team. It will be difficult to match lines against them in the playoffs. If opposing teams try to avoid the Kadri matchup, Babcock could send out a line of Komarov, Plekanec, and Kapanen in a shutdown role and let his other three lines take over the game. Evidently, the Leafs have far more options than they did with Moore.

Making an addition of this calibre always made far more sense than mortgaging the future for a bigger rental such as Rick Nash. Plekanec is an overqualified fourth line centre, and while he is no longer the same top six scorer that he used to be, he provides valuable depth at a position of need. Babcock now boasts all the tools to do what he does best, and that’s winning the matchup game. The Leafs become stacked up the middle, with plenty of talented wingers to drive play offensively.

Finally, Hardev wrote about the two Marlies players that the Leafs gave up here. From my perspective, since Vailev and Rychel did not carry much of a chance of ever making the Leafs, this trade essentially boils down to Plekanec for a late second round pick. Vailev has been a steady penalty killer and defensive presence for the Marlies all season, but he lacks the puck moving ability to provide much intrigue as a NHL prospect. Rychel is a solid forechecker and net front presence, but it was tough to see him surpassing Carl Grundstrom or even Josh Leivo in the team’s long term plans.