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Jamming the crease

Habs' latest whiz kid, Bergeron's condition and more

Posted: Friday November 9, 2007 1:32PM; Updated: Friday November 9, 2007 3:37PM
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The Canadiens  brought Czech import Tomas Plekanec along slowly and are now reaping handsome rewards.
The Canadiens brought Czech import Tomas Plekanec along slowly and are now reaping handsome rewards.
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Keep an eye on Mike Modano's play over the next couple weeks. Now that he's finally coerced the monkey that was the American-born scoring record off his back with a pair of goals on Wednesday night in San Jose, Modano is likely to be a much more comfortable, and productive, player. The frustration of his prolonged pursuit of Phil Housley was evident on nearly every shift over the past month. The veteran center spent almost as much time looking heavenward for answers after each missed opportunity as he did following the play.

Speaking of that scoring mark, the American record of 1,233 points stands sixth on the all-time list by country, behind Canada (Wayne Gretzky, 2,857), Czech Republic (Jaromir Jagr, 1,543), Finland (Jari Kurri, 1,398), Sweden (Mats Sundin, 1,264) and Slovakia (Peter Stastny, 1,239). On the plus side, it's well ahead of Russia (Sergei Fedorov, 1,113), Ireland (Owen Nolan, 778), Brazil (Robyn Regehr, 104) and Indonesia (Richie Regehr, 4).

Habs new whiz kid

With nearly every NHL franchise employing at least one player who is still in his first year of eligibility to vote for thievin' politicians, it seems that few teams these days have the patience to allow a youngster to develop before he is thrust headlong into the world's best league.

The meteoric rise of goalie Carey Price being the exception, the Canadiens have bucked that trend. The Habs are giving their top prospects plenty of time to simmer and soak up seasoning. That was the tasty approach they took with Tomas Plekanec, giving the Czech import three full seasons to learn how to play the game in the American Hockey League with the Hamilton Bulldogs before handing him an NHL job in 2005-06.

Two years later, the Habs may now have one of the game's best young centers, and easily one of its best-kept secrets.

His Q rating isn't likely to change any time soon. Despite possessing plenty of flash, Plekanec isn't the sort of player who will generate headlines outside of Montreal. He doesn't possess the natural gifts to become a first-line center, or the media savvy to draw attention to his accomplishments. But he's exactly the sort of player who can be invaluable in returning the Habs to glory.

Not that he was ever considered a sure thing. The 71st overall choice in the 2001 draft, Plekanec arrived in North America a year later to little fanfare. Despite an eighth-place finish the previous season, the Habs resisted any thought of rushing his development and sent him to Hamilton to apprentice under Doug Jarvis.

"It's about putting a player in a situation where he has the best chance to succeed," Montreal GM Bob Gainey has said about the team's philosophy.

Although Plekanec blossomed quickly with Jarvis, who was a crafty center in his day, the Habs remained committed to the long-term approach. Plekanec's defensive game was already fairly sound, so he was asked to work on his offense. After scoring 19 goals as an AHL rookie, he steadily improved to 23, and then 29 -- a total made more impressive when you consider the AHL was stocked with young NHLers during the 2004-05 lockout. Gainey certainly noticed, and after three long years, Plekanec earned the call.

The key to his success then, as now, is speed. He changes gears effortlessly and has a world-class top end, a skill he displayed repeatedly in Thursday night's goal-and assist effort in Montreal's 2-1 win over the Bruins. But beyond that, the little things define Plekanec as a player worth watching.

"He finds ways to make you notice him," an Eastern Conference scout said. "He may have been Montreal's best player against Carolina in the playoffs two years ago. He's not that big (5-10, 196), but he really battles out there. The first thing you notice is his attention to his own zone, but he's really tricky with the puck, and he excels at finding open space. And he's good at making the most of his wingers, but he doesn't need to rely on them to create offense."

After Thursday night's performance, Plekanec had five goals and 13 points in 15 games, tied for second on the team. That puts him on pace for a career-high 65 points -- a solid output for a second-line center, as well as a step up that suggests an even better future.

"Three years riding the buses can seem like an eternity," the scout said. "But guys who are going through it can look at a kid like Plekanec. He's proof there's light at the end of the tunnel."

And proof to NHL teams that patience can be rewarded.

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