One of the more intriguing storylines heading into the offseason was whether or not Andrei Markov would return for another season with the Montreal Canadiens? Well, last week we got our answer in the form of a resounding “no.” The veteran defenseman elected to sign a two-year deal with Ak Bar Kazan of the KHL, ultimately ending his 16-year playing career with the Canadiens and leaving him tied for second all-time with Guy Lapointe among Habs defensemen with 572 points.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of this entire story is the fact that a press conference was held in front of the Montreal media to announce that Markov would not be returning, but even more strange than that was his willingness to play on a one-year deal that was shot down by general manager Marc Bergevin. Negotiations were rumored to have started with Markov (representing himself in talks) asking for a two-year extension, but when Bergevin reportedly wavered on this, the 38-year-old proposed a one-year deal to no avail. Which begs the question, was this a wise decision by Bergevin in the first place?
Bergevin added four blueliners during the offseason, most notably was the signing of former Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner to a five-year deal with a $4.625M AAV. Also hopping on board are journeyman Mark Streit, David Schlemko and Joe Morrow. Alzner definitely brings a shutdown role to the lineup and can play against the opponents top lines in addition to short-handed minutes. However, the Habs will indeed have a glaring hole on the blueline in terms of their powerplay and I’m not sure at this stage of his career that Streit can immediately step in and fill the void left by Markov:
“Andrei Markov got a point on 80% of the PP goals scored when he was on the ice last season, highest percentage for a d-man in the NHL.” (Arpon Basu, NHL.com)
Reflecting on that stat from Markov’s powerplay time last season, it makes you wonder why Bergevin was so reluctant to let him go? According to capfriendly.com the Habs have roughly $8.5-million in salary cap space and based off his previous eight seasons with the club, Markov signed for $5.75-million per year (assuming he wouldn’t take a discount to stay this time). Of course, Habs fans will tell you that it is all part of Bergevin’s master plan, but does he really have a trade in the works behind the scenes? Names like Matt Duchene and Tyson Barrie from the Colorado Avalanche have surfaced for several months now, but general manager Joe Sakic seems firm on his demands for what he expects in return. With eight defensemen currently signed to their roster and prospect Noah Juulsen knocking on the door for NHL playing time, it’s hard to imagine Bergevin having the room to add another blueliner in a would-be blockbuster deal. He already made a splash by acquiring forward Jonathan Drouin from Tampa Bay, and may have lost a generational prospect in the process by sending Mikhail Sergachev the other way — that’s the price you pay for top-end scoring talent.
It’s no secret that the Habs’ recipe for success has been building from the net out around MVP-caliber goaltender Carey Price. But, they were a middle of the pack team last year with 223 GF (15th) and a PP% of 19.7% (13th). It’s easy to sit there and say “but, we have the best goalie in the world!” Sure, allowing just 198 goals against (4th) is great, but as we saw with the Habs two years ago when Price was lost for the season after just 12 games, the team couldn’t recover and missed the playoffs with just 82 points. I’m not saying that Bergevin is wrong in his philosophy to build a strong defensive unit in front of an elite goaltender, but there seems to be too much reliance and almost too much pressure on Price at times to carry the burden and one begins to wonder if his shoulders are getting sore through the years?
Electing to turn the other cheek and let go one of their prized defensemen of more than 15 years seems backwards for a team that was middle of the pack in scoring and surely can’t be more improved in that category with the additions of Alzner and Streit. Everyone in that dressing room knew the importance and the role that Markov played for that team, especially captain Max Pacioretty with his thoughts during last season:
“He has chemistry with everybody,” Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said. “You see everyone comes in here and scores goals, look at [Markov] and the plays he makes on those goals.
Markov can be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and Pacioretty joked he hopes he will never retire because it would cost him 10 goals a year. The public may not know much about him and he may not get the recognition he’s deserved, but it’s doubtful Markov cares much.
“He’s just a guy who’s comfortable coming to the rink, doing the right thing and doing the right thing for his teammates,” Pacioretty said. “And that recognition’s always been here in the room. When someone gets traded here the first thing they say is, ‘I can’t wait to go out there with [Markov]. Some of these passes I see him make, I can’t wait to be on the other end of those.’ (Arpon Basu, NHL.com)
Perhaps the biggest impact of Markov’s departure will be how it affects the play of Shea Weber. In 2016-17 without Markov he registered 5v5 numbers of 58.9 GF% and 50.3 CF%, but playing alongside the Russian his numbers 5v5 were 66.7 GF% and 53.3 CF% — there’s no mistaking the impact here. Regardless of his age, 38, Markov still carried an indelible place on the Montreal back end and that’s not something that can simply be replaced with ease.
Bergevin may have gotten a pass (or so we think?) when sending P.K. Subban packing for Weber last summer and hammering home to Habs fans the idea of a win-now mentality. However, shrugging his shoulders at the loss of one of the greatest defensemen to ever lace up his skates in a Habs uniform is not something that fans can bat an eye to. Make no mistake the loss of Markov is simply another bullet that can be added to the list of Bergevin’s failures, just like watching Alexander Radulov walk to free agency this summer. It’s another case of Bergevin simply standing at the top of his mountain, feeding his ego and pumping his chest for the hockey world to see.