Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Canadiens fans, as a breed, have very short memories. As proof, imagine three years ago, when the Habs won the Eastern Conference. The team's power play was tops in the league, and the buzz of excitement when fans watched Andrei Markov slide a cross-ice pass through four opponents for a one-timer and a goal was automatic. Recall the burst of surprised appreciation when Markov sneaked in from the point to catch a goalie napping, which he did so often he might have patented the move. Or remember him calmly angling an opposing winger out of the play and using his stick to strip the guy and send the puck the other way. Two years ago, same thing. The guy had his best career season offensively, and people were buying "Markov is God" shirts.
Now, fast-forward to this year. Coming off a terrible series of injuries, including two anterior cruciate ligament reconstructions within five months, the buzz around Markov is about whether the Canadiens should even bother to re-sign him this summer. A quick poll of Habs fans I know returned these comments: "He's injury-prone, let him go." "Wisniewski is younger and puts up as many points, so sign him instead." "I'd take him back, but only for a year, and for less than three million." How quickly we forget.
Andrei Markov, when he's healthy, is an All-Star calibre defenceman. His vision is brilliant, he's creative and smart and savvy. He's the kind of D-man who can launch an attack from his own zone with a single pass, who can play 30 minutes a night against the other team's top line and come out on top. He can kill penalties and quarterback a powerplay, all while racking up points of his own. This is a defenceman any team would be lucky to have.
The caveat, of course is, "when he's healthy." So, let's look at that question in detail. In the last two seasons, Markov has missed all but 52 regular season and 8 playoff games. His first major injury in that stretch was the cut tendon, courtesy of an errant Carey Price skate blade, that took him out of the lineup for a good part of last season. That injury must be dismissed as a freak incident. He came back from that to put up 34 points in just 45 games, going plus-eleven in the process. So, no problem there.
The Matt Cooke hit that led to his first ACL reconstruction, likewise, could have happened to anyone. Players blow knees all the time, and that particular kind of tear isn't indicative of a specific frailty in a person's physical makeup. You fall awkwardly, your knee twists the wrong way and you rupture a ligament. So, you go through surgery and get your ligament fixed. That's what Markov did. Unfortunately, he may not have waited long enough before his return to the game.
The prescribed rehab schedule recommended by most reputable orthopedic surgeons suggests a minimum six months before returning to demanding sport. Markov returned a little more than five months after surgery, which, in retrospect, might have been a mistake.
There are several possible reasons for ACL reconstruction failure. Overall, the grafts fail up to 8% of the time, and up to 95% of those failures are due to physician error in placing the graft. Other factors, however, that can contribute to reconstruction failure include overly-aggressive rehab or trauma to the joint before healing is fully complete. So, what looked like a fairly simple play when Eric Staal took Markov into the boards last November, ended in another knee injury.
Markov's second surgery, last December 8, was conducted by Dr.James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr.Andrews specializes in repairing joint damage for high-level athletes in impact sports like football, snowboarding and even ballroom dancing. He's very highly regarded in the field. Of the several kinds of graft available for ACL repair, Dr.Andrews is well-known for using the patellar tendon graft, in which a tendon is taken from beside the kneecap, with pieces of bone attached to either end. Those bone pieces are screwed into existing bone in the knee joint and the tendon is used to replace the missing ACL. The success rate of that surgery in terms of the patient returning to his full range of motion in sport is between 85-95%, largely depending on the quality of the surgeon and proper strengthening and healing time.
There are possible side effects, which include pain in kneeling and the potential of breaking the kneecap more easily than someone who never had the proceedure. Overall, however, a good ACL reconstruction using this method, given enough time to heal with proper strengthening of the supporting muscles, should produce a knee at least as strong as the one with which a person is born. Even so, there's always risk that a knee that's been perfectly repaired just isn't as able to handle the rigours of high-performance sport as it was before the injury. That's the risk on the list of side effects.
So, assuming Markov's doctor did a good job, which is reasonable, and Markov himself is working diligently to strengthen his affected leg, there's every reason to hope he won't be any more fragile upon his return than he was two years ago. Recall, if you will, that up until he was cut by Price's skate, Markov missed only nine games over the previous three seasons combined. He was no more or less fragile than anybody else. The question about whether he can still handle the stress of playing high-speed hockey should be answered fairly quickly, and if it's in the affirmative, the strength of the repair itself should not be an issue.
If concerns about his health can be laid to rest, the upside in re-signing Markov is high. At 32 he's still in his prime, and his play in both ends of the ice immediately improves upon this year's defence corps. The Canadiens need D-men who can move the puck quickly and accurately, and Markov brings that. He offensive ability can also infuse new life into an often moribund Habs attack. In 2008-09, his last full season with the Canadiens, he scored 64 points, seven more than Tomas Plekanec's team-leading 57 this year. In the big picture, you can compare the fact that Markov has put up .59 points-per-game throughout his career, while a guy like Nicklas Lidstrom has scored .57 PPG. And Markov's ability to play big minutes in tough situations relieves the pressure on less-skilled defencemen who've been required to take those shifts in his absence.
Add to the on-ice ability Markov brings to the lineup the intangibles like leadership, experience and dedication to the organization, and the decision to re-sign him becomes even easier. He's reportedly looking for a three-year deal, probably at similar money to what he made in his last contract, maybe a little less as a goodwill gesture for the team's taking the risk that his knee rehab is for real. One thing's sure: if the Canadiens are finicky about taking Markov back, there are a whole bunch of other teams that won't be so nervous.
Think back to last season, and the expectation was that Markov would be a leading contender to captain the team. The qualities that made him a candidate for the "C" haven't gone away because he's had knee surgery. In a little spin on irony, a lot of Habs fans want to replace Markov with Wisniewski; a man who's had his knee rebuilt three times. In the end, if there's a better-than-even chance Markov is his old self come fall, which all evidence suggests there is, he must remain a Canadien.
How quickly we forget.
Posted by J.T. at 10:50 AM