It's a wonderful thing that Andrei Markov is finally ready to come back to the Canadiens. On a personal level, can you even imagine the frustration and boredom he's dealt with in the last two years? The weeks of pain after surgery, then day after day of repetitive exercises in the gym. The days stretch into weeks and then months and ice time never seems closer. You never feel like you're part of the team because you don't travel with them, you don't skate with them and you watch all the games from the press box. After two years, nearly half the players on the team have never actually played with you, and you feel like your name is being forgotten. Not to mention the fans' assumption that after three injuries in two years, no matter how talented you are, you're now not only injury-prone, but likely to crap out before the playoffs. Markov has hoed a very tough row for the last couple of seasons.
What makes it harder for him is the fans who expect him to be God. He's supposed to come back to an injury-ravaged, underperforming, poorly-coached team and lead it into the playoffs. He's expected to save the power play, solidify the defence and boost the attack. In truth, his return might be an early holiday gift for fans, but Markov's return isn't likely to be the Second Coming.
After two years away from the game (save the seven games he played last season), Markov is going to be rusty. He's going to look slow sometimes and he's going to make tactical errors when required to make crucial decisions at high speed. He'll probably pinch deep and not get back in time to prevent a break every once in a while. He's just not at game pace yet. Patience is important in letting him re-adapt to the NHL game, but the fear is that fans have no patience left.
Four or five years ago, when minor injuries would keep Markov out of the lineup for a couple of games, the team's win/loss record without him was dismal. He was the engine that drove the Canadiens' special teams and the guy responsible for shutting down the opponents' best guys. Then, two seasons ago when Carey Price's skate slashed his tendon and cost him most of the year, the Habs had to learn to cope without Markov long term. They managed it, remaining a playoff team even in The General's absence. From the fans' perspective, the old habit of relying on Markov never really went away, though.
While the team focused on making the most of the assets it had left, the fans dreamed of "When Markov comes back." As in, "When Markov comes back, the D will move the puck better, the power play will score again and have-not will be no more." That's a heavy burden to place on a guy who's missed a lot of hockey. Markov is lucky to be blessed with great instincts and hockey sense, and they may help him adapt his game to accomodate a possible reduction of mobility. He will certainly help the team, but the fans need to remember there's a chance he won't be the same player who used to control the Habs blueline and make the All-Star game without having to be voted in. The trick is to accept him for what he brings and learn not to mourn what he doesn't.
That could be tough for a lot of people who've been breathlessly waiting with stars in their eyes for the day Markov returns. Because once he returns and the dream becomes reality, there's no more hiding the truth of what the Canadiens really are. For better or worse, the real Habs will be revealed, and it may not be pretty. We can hope the verdict will lean toward the "better" side of the scales, but it should probably be a cautious optimism. For now, instead of hoping Markov will save the season, it'll be nice just to see him back on the ice. It's been too long.