Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Marked Off

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.


Woodvid said...

Just a small correction - the Price cut wasn't the first in this series of injuries. The Price injury happened in the first game of that season, and I believe he missed the preceding playoffs due to a hit by that #*$%%& Grabofsky in the *last* game of that regular season. That makes 4 serious injuries in... 2 years? He's missed 2 out of the last 3 playoff seasons, and in the one he did play, was there for only 8 out of 19 games or so.

In spite of that, I do agree with you and hope they bring him back for 2-3 years for maybe a little less than he gets now, as you suggest.

Anonymous said...

Can I had somthing here about the risk factor?

Yes he's injury-prone, but the Habs aren't exactly poor. So if, like the last two years, he gets injured, just too bad, but his salary doesn't count on the cap. So it's not like he's gonna jam the payroll.

And like Leigh Anne said, when he's on the ice, Markov is a bargain for the 7th floor and us fans.

Flint said...

I hope they keep him.

Unknown said...

Just imagine PK and Markov for a whole season!

Howard said...

The defense corps I would like to see next season:
Markov - Gorges
Subban - Gill
Hamrlik - Spacek
flex - Webber

Hamrlik would have to be signed at a discount, say 3 million. I would give Markov a 3 yr deal for 15 million.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, just saw the horrible typo. Could you please correct my "had" for "add"? Thank you.

J.T. said...

@Woodvid: I deliberately disregarded the injury from the Grabovski hit. That injury didn't require surgery and there's no evidence that he wouldn't have been playing if the Habs had actually made it longer than four games in the playoffs. I didn't consider that out of the ordinary for any player who gets a day-to-day injury. In that case it was just that the timing was terrible.

@Jesse: Markov & Subban for a whole season is drool-worthy.

@Howard: Respectfully, you just CANNOT keep all three of Gill, Hamrlik and Spacek if you hope to improve the speed and agility of the defence to mesh with the style of the forwards. Since the Habs are stuck with Spacek's contract and there's a chance Gill will return for leadership and PK reasons, Hammer's got to go. I wouldn't mind the return of Wisniewski for the PP and for a 3-4 role. But there has to be an improvement in the mobility of the D, and that means all those guys can't stay.

Yanne L VĂ©ronneau said...

I also think the Habs definitely have to sign Markov. He's certainly amongst the NHL's best defensemen. Perhaps Wiz's numbers are comparable, but Markov is an elite defensemen in all situations while Wiz's work in his own end is adequate at best.

Defense wins championships and Markov and Subban could make the Habs top four one of the best in the league for years to come. I love Georges and think Weber does show promise, but I am somewhat concerned about the remaining 2 spots. IMHO they should be occupied by physical defensive D-men with some edge to their game.

For next year I would be ok with Gill (because of his mentoring ability and PK prowess) and I would do all I could to bring in Emelin (because he's the only adequate option in the system), but PG has to be on the lookout for an elite shut down man or two to give some balance to the group (Bieska, Brewer, Hannan...). If he achieves this, along with Price in goal, the habs are really set on the backend.

Later, we'll need to bring in a big physical guy that can play for the 1st, 3rd and 4th line. Then we're in business.

Markov - Subban
Emelin - Georges
Gill - Weber

Cammalleri - Pleks - x
Paccioretty - Gomez - Gionta
A.Kost - Eller - x
Moen - x - White

(x candidates: Cole, Laich, Glencross, Upshall, Talbot, Konopka...)

Anonymous said...

Drooling :)
Cammalleri - Pleks - x
Pacioretty - X- Gionta
A.Kost - Eller - x
Moen - x - White

Markov - Subban
Georges -Emelin
Gill - Weber

Blue Bayou said...


It's good to see such a level of detail on the injuries and the surgery involved, when discussing what is a complex and quite crucial decision.

I assume you went to Dr Recchi for the finer medical detail.

Anonymous said...

Giving Wisniewski crap for lack of defense in his own end is undermining his defensive ability altogether. If you really wanna boost the Habs, defense, i would say to get rid of Hamrlik. Yes, he has been here for awhile, but his lack of speed, and yes, lack of defense in his zone make him a viable candidate for free agency. With Wisneiwski may be an offense-oriented defenseman, put Markov, Gorges and Gil would more than make up for Wisneiski's 'lack of defensive ability in his own end. I would also consider bringing Brent Sopel back as the 6th defenseman, to even out that 3rd line.


Anonymous said...

I would let the Wiz go and give Weber the chance. Wiz 3yrs =12 mil
Weber 3 yrs= 5 mil
Use the freed up money to sign a free agent

Mehoff said...

Mara,Sopel,Hammerlick..all 3 wont be back. Of the 3, I would take Mara as a cheap 7th D-man. Gill 1yr max! I think his days are # in the NHL. We need to build within, and Webber is looking good. Wiz or Markov..not both. We need to spend money upfront not all on D. Dont forget the need to sign Georges also

Anonymous said...

It's nice to see Markov getting the recognition he deserves. I've thought for the last 5 years he is one of the top 5 or 6 D-men in the league. Why anyone would even consider letting him go is beyond me. Sure Subban has made great strides and has the potential to be an all-star for years to come (and I thought he was even more impressive defensively than offensively for the latter part of the season.) But you can never have too many premier defensemen.

I thought the reason the Habs had so much trouble scoring (other than the stifling system Martin has them playing) was not that the forwards lack skill but that they weren't able to take advantage of their speed because the D was so slow to make the first pass. Markov would change that single-handedly.

I also think they should sign Wisniewski - but only so they can trade him to recover their second round pick (or perhaps even more). I don't think his offensive upside makes up for his incredibly poor defensive play. He was regularly stripped of the puck inside the blueline. Worse than that, he is always trying to force cross-ice passes that get picked off just inside the blueline (even when he isn't under pressure). He isn't quite as bad at it as Spacek but pretty close. I counted 3 giveaways by him in one 15 second sequence in one of the Boston playoff games.

I'm not sure why Martin has so little faith in Weber, but I would give him the chance to show what he can do.

Anonymous said...

Great Blog JT

Markov is a must sign...unless is looking for 4 years at the same salary.

Here are my option

1 years = same salary
3 years = 15 million
4 years = 16 million

If Montreal take a chance on him for more then 2 years, the price tag need to come down.


olematelot said...

Sign him! Markov and PK on the PP = bad news for the rest of the league. Great article JT, makes understanding the surgery very clear.

moeman said...

Such a good read.

No question, sign Markov to a 3 year deal. He is pure class, pure skill. Stay healthy Vodkov!

Mike Safoniuk said...

Since we're speculating ...

What about adding Brewer as a UFA D?

Spacek as sub (yes he's an expensive sub)

I like the Wiz but I think he'll garner a fatter contract on the UFA market than his actual value. Brewer is a little older and doesn't have the offensive upside so may not be as hot a commodity come UFA-season?

I also like Hamrlik. He played well for the Habs but I simply can't imagine that he could settle for what he's likely worth here in Montreal?

Anonymous said...

Letting Markov go scares me as 25+ teams will froth at the mouth to sign him. He will be expensive. Sounds like he already rejected an offer recently made. We need to sign him as few others stood out on the PP this year (PK, Cammy). And the PP would improve 50% with Andre on the ice. He brings leadership that none others bring, hands down. I think his PP quarterbacking skills hinge on his creativity and ability to not get scared and nervous like most of our team these passed two years. PK will learn so much more from Gill, Markov and Spatcho. Not eager to see Hamrlik res0gn unless it is for much less. I have been critical of Hamrlik these passed two years and he did carry a big load but he is old. Wiz was a good fill in but think he will be too expensive. He's already over $3M. I won't cry if he goes. I liked Mara's physicality. Soppel was ok but he cost us a crucial goal due to his brain-fart.

spacek-Hamrlik (@ much less than $5.5M)
Weber-Wisnieskie(will be too expensive) or Mara or Soppel

I am hoping Markov will sign for less, as will Gill as I think they are those types of people. However, I understand Markov has signed for less in the past so not sure if he will do this again.

Darcy said...

JT - Great read as always!

just a side note -- Markov just got his Canadian citizenship last summer.. he WANTS to be here!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the success rate for this operation with this particular doctor and his pro athlete patients is not 75% or 80% or anything close. The doctor's own published data shows that between 35% and 50% of the athletes he does this kind of repair work on end up playing two-three more years. That's it. And most of his patients are not hockey players -- hockey players probably have an even lower success rate due to the nature of the game. The problem with signing Markov and hoping for the best is that you lose the chance to sign someone else. Sure, if Markov gets hurt, his salary doesn't count aganist the cap -- but it's too late to sign a solid d-man to take his place. All I can say is that the Habs team doctors, coaches and training staff better do some VERY thorough investigative work on the state of Markov's health before anyone signs anything.

Anonymous said...

I still believe we need size on D as well. I disagree with fans that wants to bring back both Hamrlik and Gill they are old and the HABS will be bound to their cap hit even after a buyout.

The D core should look something like this if we want to go far in the playoffs:

Markov - Bieksa
Gorges - Subban
Spacek - Shane O'Brien
Plus Nash, Weber and Diaz.

This will give us a mix of size and good first pass.
The money to resign Hamerlik, Wiz and Gill will suffice to pay O'brien (1.6 mil 2010-2011) and Bieksa (3.75 mil 2010-2011).