Three weeks ago, we were devastated to hear rumours Andrei Markov would be out of action for three months with yet another knee injury. That prognosis seems fantastic now. Now, looking at an entire year without him, it's a crushing blow.
Our disappointment first must be for the man himself. Markov has given a lot to the Canadiens, and loves playing hockey. This latest injury has to be crushing for a guy who's spent most of the last two years rehabbing, sitting on the sidelines and helplessly watching his team go on without him. Missing the game itself is bad enough, but now Markov has to deal with more pain, more surgery and more rehab. Worse, it's all happening at a stage in his career when he was hoping to sign his last big contract and finish up as a Hab. That's all in jeopardy now, with the doubts about his long-term health this situation has stirred up.
Lots of fans will put a bright face on the situation. The Canadiens are winning without him, the power play is recovering, Subban is capable of playing Markov's minutes and the loss of the team's most expensive defenceman opens up millions in cap space that Gauthier can use to improve the forward lines.
All of that is true, but it's an overly optimistic view. It's rare for a team to succeed without an elite defenceman. Last year the Habs managed to get by the Penguins without Markov, but against Philly, when an effective PP might have made the difference in a game or two, his loss was much more keenly felt. Subban may be the kind of guy who can fill that role in a couple of years, but, as we saw against the Oilers, he's still a kid with a lot to learn. Andrei Markov is an All Star, number-one defenceman and he's not that easy to replace. His absence might save the team his salary, but whatever Gauthier uses the money to buy won't be Markov and won't fill the hole he leaves.
Cap space alone isn't a solution either. It allows the Canadiens to pay a new acquisition, but first the Habs have to spend assets to get that guy. WIth Markov in the lineup, they keep their picks and prospects. Now, if they want to use that cap space, they have to spend something they probably don't want to spend first.
Still, something will happen with the money. It has to, but it won't be right away. With the team holding on to first place in the division, Gauthier has the luxury of waiting for the right deal to come along. The team needs a couple of pieces to be a real contender. It needs to get a defenceman to shore up the Markov-less blue line. It also needs a tough forward with hands who can round out the Gomez line and not collapse under Philly's forecheck. One or both of those might be acquired with the money the Habs are saving. They still won't replace Andrei Markov.
I think it's important for the team to re-sign Markov this year. He's not yet 35, so if he should retire early or sustain another injury, he won't count against the cap. If he comes back even at 80% of the player he used to be, he'll be worth his contract. He's the kind of asset you don't want to see end up with a rival. His loyalty to the team and determination to make himself whole again deserve repayment by management. Two years at four million to show good faith and give him a chance to prove he can still play would be enough. There's no question his leadership and the quality of his play are worth that.
For now, while Gauthier is busy looking for a way to get best value for the cap space he's just acquired, we should be realistic. Whatever he gets won't be Andrei Markov, and the day the team's best defenceman got broken again could very well be the day the season changed for the Canadiens.