One of the best parts about the day after a Habs blowout win is wallowing in the news reports and the highlight reels of all the best stuff from the night before. It should have been great fun to re-watch Plekanec's four points, Price's great saves and the general humiliation of the annoying Hurricanes this morning. Instead, the enjoyment was ruined by the uneasy suspicion that Andrei Markov...he of the worst luck since Saku Koivu...sustained another knee injury that will keep him out for months.
The worst thing about a situation like this, aside from the inevitable loss of Markov himself, is the way it will drag on for days without any information about how serious the injury is or how long he'll be out. We'll spend days wondering and listening to pundits and fans talk about how injury-prone Markov has become, and how he isn't worth a new contract anymore.
The truth is, pending P.K.Subban's rise to greatness, Markov is still the best defenceman the Canadiens have. While it took him four or five games to get back up to speed following his ACL surgery, in the last three he's proven his value again. With him in the lineup, veterans like Spacek play fewer minutes which keeps them fresher and limits their time against top lines. Josh Gorges gets a promotion and a chance to develop and learn, which he wouldn't get when paired with Hal Gill. The transition game is smoother and faster, the forwards get more points because Markov's back there springing them on odd-man rushes and the PP improves because Markov's creativity divides the opposing defence's attention.
Markov is the kind of defenceman any team in the league would pay a premium to get, and the Canadiens are lucky enough to have him and his dedication to the team. It's unfortunate for him and for his teammates that his own luck is a lot crappier than most people's. There should be no question that the team keeps him around. The Habs are better with him, and he won't be hurt forever. After what he's done for the team, he deserves to be shown patience and respect.
There's no point lamenting whether Staal meant to hit Markov in the knee. (Although it looked like he did...and how many times will a freakin' Hurricane take out a valuable Hab without a penalty call?!) It's done and the Canadiens will pay the price. The question is, for how long? If it's the three months RDS is guessing, the team may have to make some moves to make up for his absence.
The short-term answer is a reshuffling of the D pairings and the insertion of Picard. This is a bit scary because, while he's played some quietly solid defence, there's a reason why four NHL teams have already passed on him. He's yet to prove he can be consistent for a longer stretch of games and, even if he comes in and plays a solid game in his own end, he's not an offensive catalyst like Markov. Still, if he's paired with Gill, playing limited shut-down minutes, Martin can keep the Old Guards Spacek and Hamrlik together and replace Markov with Subban in Gorges' pair. That way, the younger guys get the most minutes and the top-line assignments. Picard and Gill can play shut-down. That arrangement could work for a little while.
Long-term, if long-term becomes an issue, the Habs might have to consider a trade. The problem there is they really don't have any assets they'd be willing to deal for a quality defenceman, and they're not going to get a good one unless they give something worthwhile in return. The cap relief the team would get for a long-term Markov absence would allow Gauthier to trade scraps for a guy like Souray, but he's a pylon and would have to be demoted when Markov returns. In any case, Janne Niinimaa has already proven trading in desperation is never a good thing.
From the scrap heap, Marc-Andre Bergeron's name has come up as a PP solution. Unfortunately, he's not a defence solution, and he can only play limited minutes which doesn't help relieve the stress on guys like Spacek and Hamrlik. There's not much else available in the land of the unsigned. Jay McKee is still looking for a team. Kim Johnsson is out there, but has been dealing with post-concussion issues. Neither of them would really replace Markov either.
Hamilton offers Alex Henry, who was cut in favour of Picard in the first place, and Yannick Weber, who's been lighting it up for the Bulldogs but still has brain cramps in his own zone.
The Missing Markov problem has the potential to screw up a really good thing for the Habs. Of course, they played well without him so far, and they survived when he wasn't at his best. Still, when every point counts, it's tough to lose a guy who can make a difference in any game.
So, on a day when we should be smiling and enjoying blowing out the Whalers, and raving about how good Plekanec and Price were...and how about that Lapierre spinerama goal!...we can't enjoy it. The fun of last night is overshadowed today by the looming spectre of another stretch without Markov on the blueline. It's enough to make a Habs fan gloomy.