MONTREAL - When Mike Cammalleri left the Calgary Flames to sign with the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent last off-season, many wondered how he would perform without the benefit of playing alongside an elite player like Jarome Iginla.
But those same people never could have imagined the emergence of Tomas Plekanec as one of the NHL's top scorers , and you can count his linemate Cammalleri among them.
"I didn't know all that much about him, not seeing a lot of him playing in the west my whole career and him being over here in the east," Cammalleri said Wednesday after the Canadiens held a team meeting and off-ice workout. "I've been very impressed with him and what he brings to this team.
"The rest of it is for Bob and he and his agent to deal with, but I'd obviously love to have him."
"Bob" is Habs general manager Bob Gainey, who is faced with the delicate task of negotiating a new contract for Plekanec before he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.
Fitting Plekanec into a payroll that's already at nearly US$45 million for only 13 players next season is going to be tricky. Adding to the dilemma is goaltender Carey Price is in the final year of his entry-level deal and will be a restricted free agent July 1 as well.
Gainey was allowed to begin contract negotiations with Plekanec on Jan. 1, but refuses to say when or if those talks will begin.
"In general, I don't have a hard and fast rule about when we approach and sign potential free agents," Gainey told reporters prior to Tuesday night's 4-2 loss in Washington. "Neither do I like to talk about it while it's ongoing and have it be part of a public debate."
Gainey did say, however, the salary cap is a hindrance that can be overcome when a player is important to the team.
"It's impossible to keep every player, we've seen that in past years where players became too expensive for us to keep," Gainey said. "But at the same time, you can always find the money for a certain player if you really want to keep him."
Plekanec did not want to discuss Gainey's comments or his contract status with reporters Wednesday. But it's clear he has put himself into an excellent position to cash in this summer.
He has been a shining light of the Canadiens development system, showing consistent improvement since being taken 71st overall in the 2001 NHL entry draft.
While other Montreal prospects of the same era have had trouble becoming impact players, Plekanec has slowly worked his way to the point where he was 11th among NHL scorers with 46 points prior to Wednesday night's games. He will also be a key player for the Czech Republic at the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Plekanec is also one of the league's top penalty-killers, sitting fourth in short-handed ice time among NHL forwards for a team that is ninth in the league in penalty killing.
"He's working hard every day, and he's showing everybody he's a leader on our team," Habs defenceman Andrei Markov said. "He's the best player on our team right now.
"He's pretty comfortable on and off the ice. I'm just happy to play with him."
Plekanec - along with nearly all his teammates - had a down year last season with only 39 points, a 30-point drop from the prior year and a total he surpassed Dec. 21 this season. He avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, US$2.75-million contract July 21. With the unrestricted free-agent class of 2010 looking very thin at forward, it's likely Plekanec would double that salary if allowed to hit the open market.
Plekanec has repeatedly stated he would like to stay with the only NHL organization he has ever known. Gainey said that long history with the team will play a role in any contract negotiations to come between now and the start of free agency.
"We've had a relationship with him for nearly 10 years," Gainey said. "I'm sure he's comfortable with us, and we are comfortable with him, but the landscape is different today than it was in past eras.
"We'll find the answer on Tomas Plekanec between now and the beginning of July."
Notes - Canadiens wingers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, both out with lower body injuries, were ruled doubtful by head coach Jacques Martin for Thursday's home game against the Florida Panthers. Sergei Kostitsyn skated with no equipment Wednesday with head athletic therapist Graham Rynbend . . . Habs defenceman Ryan O'Byrne remains in his hometown of Victoria, B.C., dealing with family issues, and the team does not know when he will return . . . Markov was asked Wednesday whether or not he would be interested in the Canadiens vacant captaincy. "Yeah, I think so," Markov said. "Obviously it's a big responsibility. It's not easy to be a captain in this city." Martin said it remains unclear whether or not the team will name a captain this season.