Orthopedic surgeon Dr.Robert Ray once said, "If God had intended man to engage in strenuous sports, He would have given us better knees." Nobody can attest to the truth of that statement quite as fervently as Andrei Markov.
The Habs blueliner, after having been fairly durable for the first eight years of his NHL career, played in only twenty out of his team's 164 games in 2010-11 and 2011-12. The first time his knee ligaments tore was during the Habs' magical 2010 playoff run, after an unfortunate collision with dirty Matt Cooke. He came back relatively early from reconstructive surgery, but the return lasted only seven games. An awkward fall after an Eric Staal hit sent Markov back under the knife, causing him miss the rest of the season. He didn't return until the following March.
For a player who depends so greatly on a cerebral sort of defence, requiring superior mobility to position himself properly, Markov's injuries could have been career-ending. So, when the Canadiens, signed him to a new, rich, three-year deal in the summer of 2011, with no guarantees he'd ever be the same player again, most critics reacted somewhere between skepticism and outrage. Now in the last year of that contract, which pays him 5.75-million a season, questions about Markov's worth...and whether he should get a final contract in Montreal...still abound.
After having played only 13 games in the 2011-12 season, last year offered Markov his first real opportunity to show what he and his rebuilt knee could do. To his credit, he and the knee managed to play all 48 games in the lockout-shortened season. It was the first time since 2009 that he'd suited up for more than 45 games in a year. Added to the 21 games he played in the KHL while waiting for the NHL to restart, he answered the durability question. If there were any remaining doubts, Markov put them to rest by topping the Canadiens in ice time per game, with 24:08 minutes a night. That's more than his career average.
On the offensive side of the game, he proved he's still got it as well. Markov's 8 power play goals and 4 game-winners both topped all NHL defencemen. His 12.7% shooting percentage was also top of the list. Markov's 30 points placed him fourth among all D-men in the league. And, he scored one of only two OT winners for the Habs.
In his own end, paired with Alexei Emelin until the latter's season-ending knee injury, Markov played 107:26 minutes on the PK, second only to Josh Gorges. He and Emelin were a collective plus-one while defending together and, while shorthanded, the pair allowed 5.7 goals against per 60 minutes of PK time, better than any other pair playing more than 25 shorthanded minutes. It doesn't look good for Markov, however, that his team was ranked only 23rd in the league on the PK. A closer look at the other members of the PK units does help his case somewhat, however.
If the team's goaltender is its best penalty-killer, it must be noted that Carey Price was responsible for 30 shorthanded goals against, good for 81st in the league with a 75th-ranked .804 SV% on the PK. Peter Budaj, with the same defenders in front of him, had a .898 SV%. Josh Gorges, who was the only Canadien with more PK time than Markov, was on the ice for five more shorthanded goals against. So, the Canadiens' PK woes certainly didn't fall solely on the Russian's shoulders.
That said, Markov was on the ice for 54 goals against, the most on the team, and 20 more than P.K.Subban, who played only marginally fewer minutes per game. He also gave the puck away 50 times, which ranked him third in the league, with much less ice time than the leaders.
Numbers tell only part of the story, though. Anyone watching Markov over the course of his career would have noticed last year a difference in the smooth, effortless skating style that enabled him to anticipate the play and put himself between the puck and the opposing player. For the first time in his life, Markov looked slow. Really slow. Perhaps it was the knee, or maybe just the normal effects of age after a guy sees 30 in the rearview mirror. Either way, Markov moved differently than he used to do. The funny thing was, he seemed to be the only person who didn't notice.
Markov has always been a risk-taker. He's been the kind of defenceman who would pinch deep when the team needed a goal, relying on his speed to get him back into position if the play didn't work out. He would always take his chances with a long, precision, high-risk cross-ice pass if he thought he could spring a guy for a breakaway, counting on his mobility to cover if the pass was intercepted. When he came back to start last season, he still did those things the way he always used to do. The problem last year was, he couldn't quite catch up if his intended play went wrong. He wasn't as fast as he used to be.
While he was playing with Emelin, a typical faceoff would lead to something like this: Habs lose the draw, puck is dumped into the Canadiens end, Emelin retrieves it, passes to Markov, who then moves it up ice by passing to a forward in motion, or by skating it out himself. After Emelin went down, Markov played with, at various times, Subban, Gorges and Rafael Diaz. He found himself having to be first to the puck much more often and taking the resultant hits. His effectiveness as a puck-mover was then neutralized.
A lot of observers will blame Markov's apparent decline on the absence of Emelin. However, surprisingly, the team's PK stats stayed pretty much the same both pre-and-post Emelin. At even strength, however, Markov's numbers dropped once he had to become the puck retriever rather than the puck mover. In the last 11 games of the year, after Emelin went down, Markov was a minus-six. His points-per-game dropped slightly and his minutes were reduced.
The irony in that is that the team was actually better with Markov playing bigger minutes. When he was on the ice more than 25 minutes a game, the Habs went 7-2, and Markov scored six points. When he played less than 23 minutes a night, his team was 8-6, while Markov put up five points. There's no doubt, the Canadiens are better with Markov than without him.
The question is, will the Habs brass see it that way? The numbers from last season would seem to indicate Markov is as good as ever on the PP and on offence. However, like any older defenceman, he needs help in his own zone. So, if the Habs can partner him with someone who can fight off the forecheck and move the puck up, Markov should be able to continue to do the job for which he's best suited. If he's matched with a suitable partner, he can continue to eat minutes and pump up the offence.
All of that means Markov, depending on his partner this year and his performance, is likely deserving of a new contract in Montreal. He's played all 12 of his NHL seasons with the Habs, and it would be admirable if he could end his playing days with the team that drafted him. All he really needs is a quick partner with some size who can retrieve the puck and get it to him. Jarred Tinordi would be lovely in that role.
Any way you measure it, though, Markov is still a valuable defenceman. Even if God could have given him better knees.