Despite turning 36 shortly after the start of the 2014-15 season, Andrei Markov finished the regular schedule having averaged over 24 minutes per game for the third consecutive campaign. His five-on-five minutes have been trending up over his last few seasons, going from an average of 15:55 at even-strength in 2012-13, to 16:50 in 2013-14, to a career-high 17:22 last year.
It also marked three straight healthy seasons after a plague of knee injuries allowed him to play only 65 of the Canadiens' 246 regular season games from 2009-10 to 2011-12. Markov has missed just two games in the last three years, both late-season healthy scratches.
He shared the ice with P.K. Subban for the vast majority of his ice-time last year, seeing Subban on his opposite side during slightly less than 1200 of the 1429 five-on-five minutes he participated in. In fact, it was more likely for Markov to have Subban out on the ice with him than it was for the Russian to be backed up by Carey Price; an amazing feat of exclusivity. His second-most-common defence partner was Tom Gilbert whom he spent 153:44 with, mostly at the beginning of the season while Michel Therrien was experimenting with Subban and Alexei Emelin as a duo.
2014-15 Season Review
That time spent with Subban allowed Markov to finish the season with a positive shot attempt differential, with the pairing sharing a 52.2% Corsi-for percentage, and Markov slipping to 43.3% in the few minutes spent with a less-familiar defender.
The veteran defenceman scored 10 goals and 40 assists during the regular season, for a point total he hadn't achieved since 2008-09, before his debilitating injury troubles. Twenty-five of those 50 points came on the power play, outscoring Subban by four man-advantage points and tying for fourth with Kevin Shattenkirk, ranking behind only Erik Karlsson, former-Hab Mark Streit, and Keith Yandle for the power play points lead among defencemen.
In the tracked sample of about 18 games (using his season average of 17:22), you get a glimpse of Markov's offensive talents. Playing the majority of the season with Subban and playmaking forwards like Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, and Brendan Gallagher, Markov ranked relatively low in his contributions to Corsi events (CC in the chart: either a shot attempt or a primary of secondary pass that sets one up), but had a knack for creating the ones that matter.
He was one of the top defenders in the league at generating both shots and scoring chances. This tendency is seen when comparing the third bar from the left (shot attempts generated per 60 minutes) where he was a 40th-percentile defenceman, to bars four and seven (shots generated per 60 minutes, scoring chances created per 60, respectively) where he is near or above the 80th percentile.
That skill saw him lead the defence corps in five-on-five shots on goal, registering 95 shots to Subban's 88 with virtually identical attempt totals.
Once in the playoffs however, any talents that Markov had in the 81-game lead-up seemed to abandon him as he struggled in all facets of the game, being beaten often and decisively by opposing attackers in the defensive zone, having difficulty with outlet passes to his own forwards, and registering just two points in twelve games.
If Markov leaned on Subban during the regular season, he hopped on the Norris Trophy nominee's back during the playoffs. Markov's play dropped off so spectacularly that Subban was forced to take puck-handling matters into his own hands. Part of that may have been due to a wrist injury that he seemed to have been dealing with, though more areas than just those requiring stick skills seemed to suffer.
After a much-needed summer break, Markov should reprise his role on the top-pairing alongside Subban.
There's no doubting Markov's offensive skill. This season will require a more sensible management of his ice-time to leave him in a condition to use those skills in the post-season. Markov simply cannot play over 24 minutes every game as a 37-year-old in 2015-16.
The 16 back-to-back game sets that the Canadiens will play this year offer plenty of opportunities to rest Markov in favour of whichever NHL-calibre defenceman gets relegated to the press box when the season begins.
Given his status as one of the best offensive threats, he will still see plenty of relatively-easy minutes on the power play, though the current iteration of the man advantage that essentially has the team's best players performing slow-motion suicide drills for two minutes, regrouping after neutral zone turnovers, doesn't exactly qualify as a low-exertion exercise.
As for the penalty kill, Markov was the most-used of all defencemen to play at least 40 games for Montreal last year, so a reduction in those minutes would mean increasing the workload on less-experienced players. However, Nathan Beaulieu, in very limited action, managed the best unblocked shot attempts against rate of all defenders: a pace below 50 events every 60 minutes. So there is evidence to suggest the team can survive without its most-senior member killing the majority of its short-handed time.had very similar Fenwick-against numbers in penalty killing situations, with both Russian defenders seeing about 70 unblocked attempts coming their way per 60 minutes of short-handed time.
A season of recent-career highs in nearly all statistics for Markov means a drop is projected in most categories. including a move to more manageable minutes. Having Jeff Petry on the opening-night roster and granting Nathan Beaulieu a larger role should allow for that reduction in five-on-five minutes played.
Though his projected points per 60 minutes has him dropping from his stature of 86th-best offensive defenceman to what would have ranked as the 145th-best last year (just under Emelin's 2014-15 rate), he will still be a force on the power play, and a revamped man-advantage strategy (surely...) could see him equal, if not better, his power play production from the previous year.