At hockey-reference.com, the Player Season Finder is a fantastic tool. I used it to find past player seasons that are comparable to the early years of the Canadiens' youngsters. This should give us a ballpark idea of the career potential of each. I tried to restrict comparisons to the last dozen years or so for a few reasons (dead puck era, European invasion, clearer memory of players etc). I also tried to compare somewhat similar players. And obviously it would be preferable to see everything broken down into PP and EV situations, but that's just not possible.
The franchise's cautiousness with prospects and the lockout season make it difficult to find perfect matches, so sometimes we'll have to settle for pretty good matches.
First off, Tomas Plekanec.
The names following Plekanec are sorted by their cumulative ppg in the first three columns. The italicized cells are NHLE.
Pleks is clearly behind where Sykora, Koivu and Tanguay (not listed) were at this point in their careers.
The most tempting comparison is Datsyuk, a late bloomer whose numbers grew at a rate similar to Pleks' (albeit a little earlier). That has to be considered a far upper boundary. Or a pipe dream. Pleks hasn't exhibited anything like Datsyuk's flashes of brilliance early in his career.
The Sullivan/Briere numbers look similar to Pleks' on the surface, but remember those guys had unconventional development curves. For whatever reason (usually attributed to size/softness) they didn't get the chances they should have early on. These guys are probably at or above the absolute ceiling of Plekanec's potential.
Brendan Morrison - now this guy looks like a good comparison. His style, strengths, numbers are all similar to Pleks. Morrison has never been considered a true #1 centre, but he didn't exactly hinder that dynamite Naslund-Bertuzzi line.
Plekanec is definitely ahead of the rest - Stillman, Arnason, Cullen, Prospal, McDonald and Horcoff - making them look like lower-end projections (although there seem to be a disproportionate number of late bloomers in there - if an under contract Pleks morphs into Horcoff in his late 20s I'll be durn pleased).
Going a little further back in time, some other comparables might be Nylander, Stumpel, Cassels, Craven, Pivonka, Ridley.
So there we have it. He may not be a dominant #1 guy, but as long as checking lines are the norm in Montreal he doesn't need to be. Plekanec should have a good career.