Do you remember the old nursery rhyme, "For Want of a Nail?" If you don't, it goes like this:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
With Pierre Gauthier's decision to re-sign Andrei Markov and hope the MIA defenceman would be ready to anchor the Canadiens' blue line, Markov essentially became the proverbial nail. In considering where this season first went wrong, there's no question the shaky state of the defence corps has been a major contributing factor.
Markov was supposed to be there. He was supposed to be The General, and quarterback the power play. He should have been teaching P.K.Subban how to be an NHL defenceman and taking the heaviest minutes off the kid. In anticipation of his return, Gauthier allowed Roman Hamrlik, who'd filled the Markov-less gap over the two previous seasons, to walk away. Ditto James Wisniewski, who'd cost a second-round draft pick to come in and stabilize the PP just a few months earlier. That left a D-corps featuring two guys brand-new to North American hockey in Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin, two sophomores in Subban and Yannick Weber, two senior citizens whose combined top speed might possibly have challenged a crawling baby in Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek, the unfortunate Chris Campoli who got hurt in his first game, and Josh Gorges.
That sad lineup of defencemen meant everyone had to step up a spot to fill in for Markov. Gorges has been a warrior, thankfully none the worse for his knee surgery. Unfortunately, Emelin and Diaz were on steep learning curves, Subban regressed...possibly from trying to do too much...and Weber was wildly inconsistent. Gill and Spacek were slow and not particularly good with the puck. As a result, Diaz, Weber, Emelin, Gorges, Campoli and Subban have a total of 18 goals between them all year. The now-departed Gill and Spacek added another one goal. The dreadful lack of scoring from the back end and popgun power play led to the acquisition of Tomas Kaberle, who has contributed two goals while failing to improve the PP or fill a defensive hole, all on a bad contract. In total, the Canadiens defence without Markov has put up 112 points.
The number of points scored from the blueline may seem like a bonus, as the common perception is the forwards supply most of the points. Stats say that's not true. A look at the top ten teams in the league shows an average of 128 points scored by defencemen to date. The bottom ten teams' D-corps put up an average of 99 points. If you take the points scored by defencemen, and look at the percentage of the team's total scoring to which they contribute, the difference is even more noticable. The top ten teams' defence helped out on 65.4% of all the goals they score. On the bottom-ten teams, that number is 59.3%. If you look at the top five teams in the league, the very cream of the crop...legitimate Cup contenders...the numbers are startling. On those teams, the defence contributes to 73.6% of all the goals they score. That means they're moving the puck accurately up to the players who are putting the puck in the net. The Canadiens, at 65%, were better than average, but certainly not good enough to rank with the best.
In fact, scoring is only part of the tale. The best teams' defences not only score points, they also prevent the other team from scoring. While the Canadiens' D aren't the worst on the points front, and should probably be about middle of the pack, standings-wise, based on that fact, their inability to keep the puck out of their own net at even-strength is their undoing. Here, once again, the absence of Markov is keenly felt. The Habs have the best PK in the league, probably because the worst of the defencemen don't play on it, and the best defensive forwards do. However, at even strength, the Habs give up more goals than they score. They score only .91 goals for each one they give up, which puts them at 23rd in the league, a good indication of the defence corps' performance this year.
Then there's the power play. Hovering around last place in the league all year, it currently sits at 28th. When Markov is available, he provides the two-fold threat of a set-up from the left point as well as the back-door sneak up the left wing to pop a goal of his own. In his last full season for the Canadiens (painfully, three years ago), Markov had 24 points at even strength, and a sparkling 39 on the PP. If the Canadiens had 39 more PP goals this year, they'd jump from 28th to first; from a pitiful 14.6% to a dominant 30.5%. Of course, that's just adding Markov's PP contribution to the 36 goals the Habs already have, and that's not realistic. Some of the points put up by others would naturally not have happened if Markov had been on the ice instead. Still, even allowing for, say, 10 fewer PP goals by others, Markov on the PP would still have the Canadiens PP sitting first in the league.
Andrei Markov's ability to score and help others do the same is sorely missed on the current edition of the Canadiens. Without him, they're like the Red Wings without Lidstrom or the Predators without Weber. The team misses the points, but perhaps even more, it misses his steadying influence on the blueline. The young defencemen miss him as a mentor. And everyone pays the price when players who don't have a third of Markov's ability are forced to pick up the slack.
There's no doubt many things have gone wrong with the Canadiens this year. The problems are much more far-reaching than just the defence. One can argue, however, that the problems began for want of a nail. A nail called Andrei Markov.