Be afraid, Habs fans. Be very afraid.
Yesterday, Pierre Gauthier announced Andrei Markov would not be ready to start the new NHL season. This is not good news. Gauthier signed Markov to a 3-year contract extension in June, banking that it would be okay to let Roman Hamrlik, who carried the bulk of the injured Markov's minutes for the last two years, walk. He also let James Wisniewski, who wanted Markovian money to stay in Montreal, go. Now, if Markov can't play, there's nobody with experience and applicable skill to step in for him.
There's no word on how much time Markov will miss. We don't know if it's just training camp exhibition games, or the first five games of the season, or the first twenty. That he's not ready, after having had his knee surgery nine months ago, is discouraging regardless. Josh Gorges had similar surgery just seven months ago and he's good to go. That Markov is not is of serious concern to Habs fans.
Of course, not every player responds to surgery in the same way. Markov is older than Gorges and underwent his second operation on the same knee within a single year, which Gorges did not. Still, the thought that Gauthier has put all his GM eggs in one D-man basket is cause for concern, especially if the shells are cracked.
Maybe this is just a minor bump in Markov's road to recovery. We have to hope it is. If not, the bright, shiny season we were hoping for just a week ago may be at least a little tarnished today. Without Markov, Jaro Spacek will have to play bigger minutes, and one of Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber or Alexei Emelin had better be ready to take a regular shift in the NHL. If they aren't, Gauthier will have to hit the free agent scrap heap for yet another temporary replacement or trade yet another second-round pick for one. He's got money to spend, but at this point there's little left on the free agent market. Brian McCabe is out there, but he is to Markov what Mikhail Grabovski is to Sidney Crosby. It's not an avenue the Canadiens really want to explore at this point in the year.
Worse, if Markov is going to be intermittently hurt for the next three years, the Habs won't able to make any concrete plans for the future. That's not fair to either the player or the team.
Andrei Markov is extremely valuable as a player and a person for the Canadiens. Unfortunately, if he's not able to play at the level we're accustomed to see him at, his value as a player is diminished. For a team that's banking on him to regain his all-star form, this is at least worrisome. At worst, it's a serious setback.
This has the potential to be very bad, Habs fans. We'd better cross everything and hope the Canadiens and Markov are just being careful. The alternative does not bear thinking about.