While the rest of the hockey world focuses on what a Russian star will be doing in 2027, let’s focus for a few minutes on what a closer to home Russian star will be doing in 2011.
It would not be sacrilege to say that Andrei Markov belongs in the same conversation with Doug Harvey, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and Chris Chelios as some of the best defensemen the team has ever had. When he’s in the lineup, the Canadiens are a drastically better team than when he’s not in the lineup. His tenure as current longest service Canadien and his undeniable skill has put him in the conversation to be the team’s next captain. Yes, Markov is without a doubt one of the franchise’s all-time best; one of the bright spots, along with Saku Koivu during some depressing years in Montreal. It should also come as no surprise that if Markov plays his entire career as a member of the Canadiens, he will have his jersey retired whether he wins a Cup or Norris trophy, or neither. Have I made my feelings on him clear? Is this enough of a disclaimer? I hope so, because some of you may not like me when you finish this article.
Markov is entering the final season on a contract that pays him a very palatable $5.75 million dollars per season. At that price, Markov is an absolute steal. Based on his numbers and abilities, he ought to be making at least $7 million dollars. Come July 1st, 2011, he’ll probably get somewhere close to that number. The question is – who will be the one to give it to him, and for how long?
Markov has suffered 3 major injuries to his lower body in the past 18 months. Maple Leafs pest Mikhail Grabovsky sent him flying in to the boards, which demolished his knee. He missed the end of the season and the sweep vs the Bruins in 08-09. To kick off the 09-10 campaign, he had his achilles nearly severed by Carey Price’s skate blade. After a shorter than expected rehab (but still too long for the Habs and their fans), he made his return and everyone thought the worst was behind him. Wrong. In the second round of the playoffs, Penguins dirtbag Matt Cooke knocked Markov off his feet and in to the boards. The awkwardness of the fall again badly messed up his knee. Don’t kid yourself, these injuries take their toll, and it doesn’t take much when you’re older than 30 to permanently lose a step. This on top of the injuries that Markov has suffered in the earlier stages of his career. These all add up and have their cumulative effects. When Markov returns from his latest setback, the microscope will be on him more than ever. Has he lost that step? Can he still keep the opposition’s top players at bay? Trust me, everyone will be watching.
So here we find ourselves today wrestling over what to do with Markov as his free agency looms. Make no mistake, until Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier says something definitive, which he won’t, this will be among the top 3 topics of conversation among Canadiens fans this year.
The pollyanna-ish hope is to give Markov a new offer and simply he’ll sign it. All indications are that he loves Montreal, and wants to play his entire career here. Sure, that sounds simple enough, but sadly it doesn’t reflect the full reality of the situation. Surprisingly, in the era of the salary cap the Canadiens tight cap situation is not the biggest factor in whether or not Markov resumes his career with the bleu-blanc-rouge.
Does he really want to be here? Would he be willing to sign a similar deal to the one that is expiring? If the answer is yes to both of those, then Markov will be back, sans doute and Habs fans everywhere should smile at their good fortune. On the flip side, if he wants to be here, but for upwards of $7 million for 5-6 years…houston, we have a problem.
It takes two to tango. Do the Canadiens want him back? He’s a good guy, a team leader and means a ton the team’s success or failure. None of those things are the issue. Do they think he’s reliable enough from a durability standpoint, considering he’s on the wrong side of 30 to continue being the team’s #1 defenseman? That’s a question none of us have the answers to, as much as we think we might. No doubt at some point this year we’ll hear a clip from the tight-lipped Gauthier that will sound an awful lot like:
“Andrei Markov is a key part of this franchise and we’d love to have him back as a part of this team going forward.”
This is nothing but canned speech. Of course they’d love to have him back…what else are they going to say?
“We think Andrei has run his course as a member of this team, and we’re going to look at trading him”. This destroys his trade potential trade value.
“We are going to let Andrei explore his options come July 1st”. This would spawn a public relations nightmare. I’ll eat my monitor if we ever hear either of those from the Canadiens.
If the Canadiens truly want Markov back, then Gauthier will need to break away from tradition and find a way to get Markov signed to an extension before the trade deadline. Why before the trade deadline? Two reasons (at least):
1) Because Gauthier cannot risk losing Markov for nothing after July 1st, 2011.
Some team will be willing and able to pay more than the Canadiens can afford for Markov, and he’s worth way too much in terms of prospects and picks to simply let walk away for nothing in return. Yes, the Canadiens will have some cap room, but not a ton of it. They can’t get carried away and start matching $7+ million dollar offers for his services on a long-term contract that will take Markov in to his late 30’s. If he has his priorities straight, Gauthier will get him signed to a reasonable long-term contract before he is wooed by teams looking to bolster their playoff chances. But as I said, the cap isn’t really the issue.
2) Avoid the inevitable distractions.
I’m aware that the Canadiens don’t typically weaken themselves at the deadline, or wave the white flag on the season, but I don’t want to hear anything from Gauthier and the Canadiens along the lines of staying status quo and negotiating when the season concludes. The hand-wringing and hair-pulling will reach fever pitch in Montreal as the season progresses if Markov remains unsigned. The media will incessantly flog this issue on the radio, on tv, in print and on the web until (and after) it is resolved. The fans will light forums, blogs and twitter ablaze with nervosity. It will be unavoidable, and such issues of this magnitude always disrupt team unity and divide fan bases.
Yes, I know. The mantra in Montreal is “playoffs-or-bust”. This mantra usually means that the Habs hang on to their assets in an attempt to ensure 8th place or better. This time its different. This is not the same as letting beloved captain Saku Koivu go for nothing. Markov is worth far more than Koivu. If Brian Burke can demand a King’s ransom for Tomas Kaberle (which, granted, has yet to be met), Gauthier can ask for a God’s ransom for Markov and be more likely to get it. This cannot be ignored. It would be downright silly and irresponsible for Gauthier to not know what he can get for Markov via trade, just in case he can’t get him signed before the deadline. Many people don’t like Gauthier already, and for him to bury his head in the sand would do nothing but stoke those fires. Every General Manager knows what his assets are worth, whether he wants to move them or not, and if he doesn’t, I’m willing to bet that his team isn’t doing very well.
At the end of the day, I believe, and hope Markov will be back as a member of the Canadiens. Pierre Gauthier has surprised me during his brief reign as General Manager, and I think he’ll do things the right way here. I can never know the answer to this, but I believe Markov wants to remain a member of the team, and Gauthier knows that he has one of the league’s top-5 defensemen in his stable. But Habs fans should absolutely prepare themselves for the possibility, however remote, that Markov be elsewhere come opening day of the 2011-2012 season. It’s a heartbreaking possibility, but one that if you aren’t prepared for it, your resulting sadness and anger will be brought on by none other than yourself. We should have all learned this lesson multiple times as free agent after free agent left Montreal for other cities in recent years. Only Plekanec’s recent signing has turned the tide. At the very least, prepare yourself for LOTS of chatter from fans who insist that Markov be traded before he walks away for nothing. It’s the nature of the beast in this town and we should all be used to it by now.
However, if Markov is not extended by March 2nd, 3 p.m. EST, I would stock up on crying towels.
Just in case.