When free agency came with Andrei Markov unsigned by the Montreal Canadiens, there were reports of teams who were interested in the 38-year-old’s services. There was talk of a possible contract with the Philadelphia Flyers and even into the afternoon on Thursday, after Montreal had officially announced Markov wouldn’t return to the Canadiens, there was speculation about a possible deal with the Florida Panthers.
But for Markov it was Montreal or bust. He said as much Thursday, acknowledging that he “didn’t see (himself) wearing another jersey.” Thus, when the Canadiens decided they weren’t going to bring back the veteran defenseman, Markov decided to pack his bags for the KHL, reportedly signing a two-year deal with Ak Bars Kazan.
And what a loss that is for Montreal.
Markov has been a cornerstone of the franchise’s blueline for 15 years and has been as reliable a rearguard as the Canadiens have had over his tenure. Consistently a top-pairing defenseman since his third season in Montreal, Markov has been a guiding light for a countless number of defensemen who have come and gone through the organization and he’s been as consistent a contributor as almost any defenseman who has pulled on the Blue, Blanc et Rouge. That’s simply fact. His 572 points across 990 games in Montreal puts him into a tie as the second-highest scoring defenseman in franchise history, right alongside Hall of Famer Guy Lapointe.
Markov is and was no nostalgia act, though. Bringing him back, even at his age, wouldn’t have been something done out of respect for what he had done for the franchise in the past. Rather, it could have been done to give the Canadiens’ blueline another weapon. This past season, his age 38 year, Markov potted six goals and 36 points in 62 games. Among Canadiens blueliners, only Shea Weber put up more points. League-wide, only 37 defensemen had better offensive totals. Better yet, on a points per game basis, only 15 rearguards who played at least 41 games scored at a higher rate. And losing that kind of production is a blow to the Montreal blueline, to be sure.
This summer, Montreal has added to their blueline by signing free agents Karl Alzner, Mark Streit and Joe Morrow, as well as acquiring David Schlemko from the Vegas Golden Knights, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence in the back end. Weber can still pull his weight as the No. 1 defenseman, but Jeff Petry struggled at times as the No. 2 and the pairings only get thinner beyond that. Alzner is a shutdown guy with a shot-blocking forte who will slot into the three-spot, and Schlemko might be the safe bet as a second-pairing partner. After that it’s Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson, with Streit mixed in here and there. But Streit, 39, isn’t exactly a spring chicken, and he’s coming off of a post-season in which he watched from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bench or press box with regularity.
So, while Markov may no longer be the 25-plus minute player he was during his prime, he was still capable of 20-plus minutes per night against some tough competition. He may not be a shutdown guy or capable of controlling a game by himself, but Markov would have brought an offensive acumen that seems to be lacking from a blueline that is going to need to produce to boost an offense that ranked 15th in the NHL this past season.
Some will cite Markov’s asking price, of course, as the reason he’s not back. There’s merit to that, surely, as the reported two-year, $12-million price tag to bring him back was steep. But it’s clear that there was a willingness to be flexible to make something work on Markov’s end. Per NHL.com’s Arpon Basu, Markov said he was “ready and willing to sign a one-year deal,” but that didn’t work out. Montreal could have benefitted from a one-year deal, especially with $8.4 million in cap space to work with and no players ready to fill Markov’s shoes. Now, however, that cap space will have to either remain as a cushion or be used to improve a roster through another free agent signing or two.
The reality is, though, there’s not another player available who can really fit into the lineup or be almost guaranteed to produce at a rate similar to Markov. Of the rearguards the Canadiens brought in, Streit was the highest scoring of the bunch, but, as noted, he’s not exactly a top-pairing defenseman. Maybe he fills in as a power play specialist, but he’s not going to be able to handle or be effective while taking on second-pairing ice time.
There’s not much on the open market that can help, either. Cody Franson is the highest scoring defenseman who remains without a deal, but he doesn’t seem a likely addition to the Canadiens’ top four. Dennis Wideman had 18 points in 57 games, but the 34-year-old struggled defensively this past season. Then there’s Francois Beauchemin and Fedor Tyutin, both of whom are getting up there in age, or Eric Gelinas and Cody Goloubef, who haven’t proven to this point in their careers to be particularly effective as every game NHLers. And while there’s always the option for a trade, it’s hard to see how Montreal could add a legitimate top-four defenseman without also taking away from a roster that needs most, if not all, of its top pieces right now.
Realistically, the only defenseman the Canadiens could have signed at this point in the summer to offer them offensive help and surefire top-four minutes is the one with which they just officially parted ways. But that ship has sailed, Markov is gone. And now Montreal will have to find a way to live without him.
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