MONTREAL -- When Tomas Plekanec arrived in North America, he knew exactly what kind of player he was.
The Montreal Canadiens didn't agree.
A third-round selection (No. 71) in the 2001 NHL Draft, Plekanec joined the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League in 2002 with an identity that was clear in his mind.
"When I got there I was a very offensive guy," Plekanec said this week. "Actually, I didn't know anything about defense. I played from the red line to the opposition's goal line."
Now here he is nearly 13 years later, one of the NHL's best two-way forwards and a pillar of the Canadiens, who enter their game Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US; CBC; TVA) trying to finish with the top record in the Eastern Conference.
Though goaltender Carey Price, defenseman P.K. Subban and forward Max Pacioretty receive most of the credit for the Canadiens' success, Plekanec quietly goes about his business facing top opposing forwards and producing offensively on a consistent basis.
It is a role the Canadiens have groomed Plekanec to play from the moment he stepped off the plane from his native Czech Republic to begin his professional career in North America.
"I've been put in that situation. It's not like I chose it," Plekanec said. "Two things they taught me right off the bat when I got here was being good on both sides of the ice, and being consistent. Those are the two biggest things I learned, the two things I heard from the coaches. So I was a guy trying to listen to the coach."
The first two men to drive home that message to Plekanec in Hamilton were current Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien and assistant Doug Jarvis, who took over as coach of the Bulldogs after Julien was promoted to the Canadiens during Plekanec's rookie season in the AHL. Julien and Jarvis are coaches who take defensive responsibility seriously, to put it mildly, and Plekanec quickly got the message.
Plekanec spent three years in the AHL to become the player he is today, but his third season in Hamilton was difficult. He was ready by then to play in the NHL, but the 2004 lockout forced him to stay in the minors and he said he briefly considered leaving to play in Europe that year.
"But I didn't, and I think it was the biggest decision of my career," he said. "That third year helped me."
Once Plekanec made the NHL in 2005 he decided he'd had enough of the minor-league lifestyle and never went back, aside from a two-game conditioning stint during his rookie season.
He did so using the lessons he learned from Julien and Jarvis.
Today, Plekanec plays the same role for the Canadiens as Patrice Bergeron plays for the Bruins, and though most people would laugh off that comparison, they are in fact very similar players.
In 733 NHL games, Plekanec has 192 goals and 476 points. In 712 games, Bergeron has 198 goals and 531 points.
Bergeron is widely regarded as the best penalty-killing forward in the NHL, with good reason. According to war-on-ice.com, there are 32 forwards in the League who have played at least 450 minutes shorthanded since the start of the 2011-12 season. Among that group, Bergeron has been on the ice for the fewest goals against, a rate of 5.0 per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time. Second on the list is Plekanec, at 5.1 goals against per 60 minutes.
"What makes [Plekanec] so effective is he's so smart," Price said. "He thinks the game very well. He reads and reacts so well. To be a defensive player like that, and even to be a good offensive player, you need to have that instinct."
The one area where Bergeron clearly surpasses Plekanec is possession metrics, with Bergeron consistently among the best in the NHL while Plekanec is usually near the middle of the pack. There is a caveat to that, and that's the lack of stability Plekanec has had in Montreal over the years, with a revolving door of forwards playing with him every season.
Tomas Plekanec arrived in North America as a one-dimensional player, but has developed into one of the NHL's best two-way forwards with the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo: Francois Lacasse/NHLI)
Since the beginning of that same 2011-12 season, Plekanec has played at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 with 17 forwards, according to hockeyanalysis.com. His most frequent linemate over that span, Brian Gionta, is now captain of the Buffalo Sabres.
Told of the number of different forwards he's played with, Plekanec laughed and said, "Compare it to some other guys."
Over the same span, Bergeron has played at least 100 even-strength minutes with seven forwards, 10 fewer than Plekanec, and his most frequent linemate remains on his wing today, Brad Marchand.
This season, Plekanec has been playing the past month with two third-year, offensive players, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. Much like Plekanec learned the defensive side of the game in Hamilton from Julien and Jarvis, Plekanec is teaching Gallagher and Galchenyuk the same thing by playing with them now.
"He's very efficient on the ice and he barely ever makes a mistake," Gallagher said. "He's always in the right position defensively. You've just got to make the right, smart play that's not going to be too flashy all the time, but I think that's how you have success in this League. I think anyone who year after year can put up numbers and play against top players like he does, that's pretty impressive. For guys like me and [Galchenyuk] playing with him, we can learn a lot from him."
Plekanec has been such an important player on one of the most popular hockey teams in the world for so long, it's hard to believe how little is known about him. But that's exactly how Plekanec wants it.
He doesn't do many interviews and remains a private person, often leaving the Canadiens practice facility as quickly as he can so he can go home to his wife and their 3-year old son, said his Czech countryman and rookie teammate Jiri Sekac, who Plekanec has helped to adapt to life in Montreal this season.
If you ask any of his teammates what Plekanec is like, the word professional is invariably one of the first they use because that's his persona around the rink. It's business, and Plekanec has gone about it on an incredibly consistent basis.
Since the start of his second season with the Canadiens in 2006-07, Plekanec has missed a total of 12 games and failed to score 20 goals in a full season once. He has 16 this season, and the 16th was a special one, putting him past his former captain Saku Koivu into 27th place on the Canadiens' all-time list.
If there is a player who is the polar opposite of Plekanec on the adulation spectrum in Montreal and beyond it would be Koivu, and Plekanec is somewhat embarrassed to talk about passing him on the list.
"He had a lot of injuries and a lot of things," Plekanec said. "He was a star player. I wouldn't compare myself with Saku. If I passed him in goals, it's a matter of playing here that long and having more games than he had here. Other than that, I wouldn't even go there."
Plekanec has played 59 fewer games than Koivu for the Canadiens, but the point remains valid. Plekanec has played in Montreal for a long time, and he has been a very good player for nearly as long, even if many people don't know it.
Not bad for someone who once considered going back to play in Europe because he thought he would be stuck in the minors forever.
"It's something I never, ever expected myself to get to and it's something I'm really proud of," Plekanec said, staring at the Canadiens logo on the floor of the dressing room. "Putting the stats aside, to play that long for the Montreal Canadiens is something I never would have dreamed of. A lot of times I go back to the minors when I was in Hamilton, and I didn't expect that, to be here that long when I was going through those questions."
After all this time, Plekanec is still going strong. Maybe one day more people will start to notice.