Seeing the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens successfully pull off a trade of substance is such a weird thing. It’s not a situation that has never happened before, but it never gets much more comfortable.
In this case, I have to imagine it’s even worse for Habs fans, as they see their longest serving player head to one of their biggest rivals in Tomas Plekanec. But, I do believe this to be a move that both sides might end up happy with when all is said and done.
This conversation obviously begins with the biggest piece in the room. Tomas Plekanec has been a member of the Montreal Canadiens for a long, long time. Specifically, he’s played in parts of 15 seasons for the team, and was rapidly approaching his 1000th regular season game with the club, finishing (for now) just 19 games shy of the mark.
Through that, Plekanec has earned the following resume:
- 13th all-time in Team Points
- 7th all-time in Games Played
- 17th all-time in Goals
- 13th all-time in Assists
- 1st over his career span in Points
- 1st over his career span in Games Played
- 1st over his career span in Goals
- 1st over his career span in Assists
That’s a pretty fine resume, with five 50-point seasons, two 60-point seasons, and a 70-point season earned along the way. This is a player who has picked up Selke votes in 7 of the past 11 years, and Lady Byng votes in three of them.
But what about right now? Well, modern-day Plekanec isn’t the same player as he once was, but he still helps you out a fair bit. While the veteran centre doesn’t have the offensive punch that he used to, Montreal has continued to use him in significant matchup situations:
Despite not getting the offensive minutes that the Canadiens have passed onto Philip Danault and Jonathan Drouin, Plekanec has still fared pretty well from a play-driving standpoint, coming out with a positive relative Corsi-For percentage on a team that currently sits in the Top 10 in possession. His gains come more in shot attempts for than they do against, but that’s pretty common with players who face tougher minutes. It’s also worth noting that Plekanec’s gains are more significant in Scoring Chance-driven metrics, which are far from a gospel, not always repeatable, but at least seem to mesh with the type of player that the Leafs are looking for:
Getting away from the fancier data, he checks off a lot of boxes for the Leafs. He gives them a second tough minute centre which allows for Nazem Kadri’s line to have some of its workload distributed, and might also allow for Leo Komarov to be used on a shutdown line without having an offensive expectation. It gives Toronto four full lines with Auston Matthews returns. It gives them a player with all sorts of experience in the league, between those near-1000 regular season games and another 87 in the playoffs, including two runs to the Eastern Conference Final and appearances in nine of the last twelve years. He can kill penalties when needed, and, just for Mike Babcock, he’s pretty good in the faceoff dot as well, winning about 52% of his draws over the last two years.
While Plekanec isn’t what he was in his prime, he is still someone who can make a shift difficult to navigate for an opposing team, and someone who can still make plays when needed. Now, the pressure will be taken off severely for him; he’ll undoubtedly play tough minutes at times, but he’ll also get to carve up opposing fourth lines. I would be in no way surprised if we see a scoring push from him because of that; especially given that his shooting percentage sits at half of his career average at the moment.
The Leafs also receive Kyle Baun in this deal. Kyle is a Toronto native, and grandson of legendary Leafs defenceman Bob Baun. That’s probably where the scouting report on him plateaus; Toronto is not taking back a high-end prospect here.
He does, however, give the Marlies an extra body for the next few months. Baun, who the Habs acquired from Chicago in October, has 16 points in 54 games for the Laval Rocket this year, which is good for a tie for 10th on the team in scoring. Goal-Based time on ice estimation places Baun’s even-strength usage at about a fringe second line pace, his primary point production at about a third-line rate, and his goal differential at a +7% net positive. While Baun hasn’t seen much to any powerplay time with Laval, the Rockford IceHogs (Chicago’s affiliate) used him there last year, to some degree of success. Baun will likely take Rychel’s place as a net-front presence at 5v4, play a little less at even strength, and be a little easier to scratch/rotate if they want to draw other players in.
It’s worth noting as well that Baun’s shooting percentage is also well behind his prior year, though his struggles in 2015/16 might mean that last year was the spike year, not the norm.
Going back to Montreal are two prospects and a second-round pick. Let’s start with Rinat Valiev, who I believe to be the more substantial of the players going back to the Habs. Valiev was drafted by the Leafs in the third round of the 2014 draft, and while he hasn’t catapulted himself into the NHL yet, he’s progressed very nicely.
After spending one extra year in the WHL, Valiev graduated to the Marlies in 2015/16 and put up an encouraging 23-point rookie season that even saw him play ten games with the Leafs in the midst of their post-deadline, youth-led tank. In those, Valiev played pretty well for a 20-year-old pro rookie, not getting points but averaging a little under a shot and hit per game, blocking four shots, and putting up a 51.5% Corsi-For percentage, not significantly off the team average in his games played.
That stretch of form put Valiev on the radars of many, but subsequent breakout seasons for Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen, combined with an injury-riddled season of his own, led to a loss of public confidence in his odds. That never seemed to fade internally, though; the Marlies worked to help him recover and, in due time, reaped the rewards from it.
This year, Valiev has been apart of perhaps Toronto’s most dependable regular pair, playing on the left side with noted goal-a-game NHL sniper Justin Holl to his right. The two have played among the heaviest minutes on the team, controlled the pace of play, and Valiev has come out of it with more-than-decent point production, picking up 15 points in 40 games on a team that tends to let the forwards do most of the scoring.
While playing with Holl and going through a bit of a production spike recently may have perked up Valiev’s value, I do believe him to be an NHL-caliber player, perhaps ready as soon as now. He plays a very safe game but isn’t scared to be aggressive (be it with a shot, a pinch, a hit or a punch) when the situation requires it. At 22, he still has plenty of room to grow, and Montreal affords him a bit more room to climb up their ladder. He instantly becomes one of Laval’s best defencemen, and if the Habs feel particularly aggressive, he could even play some games for them this year.
- January 22, 2018: Leafs recall Rinat Valiev, place Morgan Rielly on IR
- September 30th, 2017: Toronto Maple Leafs Top Prospects: #22 Rinat Valiev
Montreal also receives Kerby Rychel, who I’m a little less enthusiastic about. When Columbus was originally looking to shop their 2013 first-round pick, I thought he was a player that all sorts of team should take a flier on; originally suggesting that the Vancouver Canucks should take him instead of a draft pick as compensation for John Tortorella, and later suggesting that Toronto would be wise to buy low on him.
The Leafs fulfilled that, sending Scott Harrington and a conditional pick to the Blue Jackets. For the most part, I believe that was a worthwhile move; Harrington has not been good at all for Columbus since they acquired him, and Rychel has picked up 82 points for the Marlies over 128 games, giving them relatively consistent scoring.
But now, the California-born winger has hit prime age, and there isn’t a ton of progression. While his point totals are still at AHL second-line status, they’re not dominant enough to believe there’s a major NHL future, and a lot of them come on the powerplay. In fact, his even strength production is very similar to Baun’s this year, which is likely one of the reasons the Leafs were willing to make that swap. Rychel’s bread and butter is double layered; his ability to be a net-front presence on the powerplay, and the fact that he plays a grittier game are both assets.
The major issue, of course, is that Toronto is about as stacked as can be at left wing, with Zach Hyman, Patrick Marleau, James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Josh Leivo, and Matt Martin already up top, and Andreas Johnsson, Carl Grundstrom, and Yegor Korshkov leading the way in the prospect depth chart. There is less than zero room for Rychel to grow here, whereas an organization like Montreal has among the least-productive Under-24 forward core in the AHL, and a fourth line spot within reach if Montreal sells a winger or two (likely) or if Nicolas Deslauriers stops putting up points (also likely).
Ultimately, I don’t see Rychel being more than a good fourth line winger that can be trotted onto the powerplay in a pinch, but there is a value in that, especially if you’re a team initiating a rebuild and looking to buy low and sell high on players.
Lastly, a draft pick is a draft pick. There’s not a lot to say here; it might have the most asset value in the trade, but really, we’re talking about a lottery ticket. It’s a good lottery ticket for Montreal, who now have four second round picks this year, and will need to maximize their odds at home runs over the next few years to get back on track. In Toronto’s case, it would be nice to obtain a replacement down the line, but for now, the team sits at a standard seven-pick inventory regardless.
Plekanec says he believes he'll wear No. 19 with the Leafs. 14 is retired obviously in Toronto.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 25, 2018
Summing this all up, I think both teams will be pretty pleased with this trade moving forward. Toronto avoided paying the premiums that Ottawa received for Derick Brassard and New York received for Rick Nash, and got a player that suits their roster composition now. Even if it’s not prime Tomas Plekanec, we’re still talking about a match-capable centre that can slot just about anywhere in the lineup in a pinch, win faceoffs, play special teams, and bring a ton of useful veteran experience. They also get a replacement body for the Marlies down the stretch, that they may be able to better utilize than Laval did.
Montreal, on the other hand, gets two prospects that were doomed to get held back by a deep team’s depth chart. Valiev is very likely to turn into a useful player for them, while Rychel ranges anywhere between a stopgap and a flippable asset. Add a second-round pick to the mix, and that’s a decent haul for a centre that is of little use to you for the rest of the year, who might very well return to the team in July. After all, location appears to matter a lot to Plekanec; his preference to stay within the east is likely a big part of the reason Toronto became the eventual suitor.
To sum it up even shorter: Toronto gets better without giving up any of their assumed future. Montreal gets three shots at making a quality NHL player. Turtlenecks remain in the Stanley Cup playoff picture. Both teams win. Society wins.