Among hockey cliches that are cliches because they're true are a few gems like "defence wins championships" and "you build a team from the net out." Add some like "good defence leads to good offence" and you start to understand the importance of the six guys who spend most of their time in their own end.
We all believed at the beginning of last season that the team Bob Gainey had put together might have won it all, if it only had another solid player in its top-four defence. Markov and the traitor were the first pair, hands down. Then there was Roman Hamrlik in the number-three slot. But none of Dandenault, Breezer, Gorges, O'Byrne or Bouillion really fit the role of an established top-four man. Gorges perhaps came closest, but we sometimes forget he's still young and learning. And he's not exactly the biggest man out there. As the team fell apart defensively in the latter part of the season, the lack of that solid D-man became more glaring.
Andrei Markov, once again, was the best player on the team and its only legitimate all-star. He was solid in his own zone, creative and dangerous on offence and played big minutes in every situation. His efforts won games and rarely lost them. He stood up well with other partners when the leaf-loving traitor was hurt. The team never won a game without him. But he was in trouble.
Until this summer, the Canadiens were on the path to turning Markov into another Saku Koivu. For nearly his entire career in Montreal, Koivu not only carried his line but also carried the team as one of the best (if not the best) players on the ice. The years of frustration and injury wore him down and prevented him from performing the way he might have with a better team and stronger linemates. The same thing was happening to Markov. He's been carrying the traitor for the last several seasons, limiting his own potential as a dynamic, creative offensive presence on defence. And considering the points he's managed to accumulate, that's saying something. We can only imagine what Markov might have done if he hadn't had to constantly drop back and start the rush himself because his partner was incapable of making an effective breakout pass. Not only that, but his calm competence meant he was consistently on the ice for the most minutes among Canadiens, while facing the toughest opponents.
But defence is a tough job, mentally and physically, and Markov needs help to avoid burnout. Early analysis says Bob Gainey has come to the rescue. The renovation on D will have a lot of positive effects that have already been anticipated by the Habs' faithful, including reducing the shots against, clearing the front of the net and improving the transition game. But perhaps one of the greatest benefits it will have will be in giving Markov a break.
If Markov's got a strong partner like Paul Mara, who's able to use his body well while also handling the puck respectably, he's not going to be restricted as much in what he can do offensively. It will enable him to break the puck out of the zone more efficiently if the opposition doesn't know the right-side D will always pass to Markov, focussing the attention of their checkers on him. Perhaps even more important though, is a benefit Jacques Martin pointed out yesterday. Adding a guy like Spacek, who's a very good defenceman in his own right, finally balances out the top four. It gives the coach options when facing a team like Pittsburgh or Philly, which can play two really strong lines. Now he doesn't have to double-shift Markov to try and shut those guys down. With two strong defence pairs, Markov will get more rest and not be solely responsible for facing the top players in the league on every shift.
I can see this kind of support helping Markov better maintain his energy level, which will hopefully help keep him fresher all season and perhaps avoid injury. And if he's not under constant pressure to defend against the best opposition players, he might be mentally fresher as well.
The improvement of the Canadiens defence was a long time coming for Habs fans, but perhaps has come just in the nick of time for Markov. I think a strong supporting cast will show us what the most-talented Canadien can really do. I can't wait to see it.