It’s virtually impossible for a team to make it through the NHL’s free-agency period without making some changes, either by letting players leave or by adding new faces. The pace of that change is often alarming.
It’s called a frenzy for a reason.
Fans of the Montreal Canadiens are holding their collective breath this weekend as two prominent Russians confront their free-agent status, and decide whether to act on offers from the team or to take their chances filling their wallets elsewhere.
On the one hand, the team’s longest serving player: Andrei Markov, the General, a cerebral and stalwart mainstay of the Montreal defence. One of the most underappreciated players of the last decade, if not of all time.
On the other hand is the quiet and reliable Markov’s polar opposite: the boisterous and powerful Alexander Radulov, having spent one supremely successful year in Montreal from an individual standpoint. The questions around Radulov centred on whether he could still produce in the NHL, if he had matured into a player who could become a team-first, scoring forward.
Those are questions no more.
Now Montreal faces questions of a different kind. With what is presumed to be their final offers on the table for the two veterans, the Habs have to ask themselves which would be the bigger loss; or, perhaps, how the contributions of these two players could be replaced.
Replacement would mean re-entering the frenzy, whether through a trade or through a signing drawn from a pool of players that gets shallower every few hours. Signed to a five-year deal for more than $4.5 million per, Karl Alzner might be Bergevin’s idea of a replacement for Markov.
But Alzner isn’t a puck-carrier, a point that’s been made by analysts since his arrival in Montreal was just a rumour. Markov’s ability to drive offence in spite of losing a step in the late stages of his career won’t be easily mitigated by the arrival of the defensive defenceman who previously called Washington home.
David Schlemko, added from the Vegas Golden Knights, had 18 points in an injury-shortened 62-game season last year. That’s solid production, but at an adjusted 24 points over a full season, a far cry from the production of Markov.
If Bergevin is considering Markov as having been replaced through his top additions on defence, he’d better hope that this collection of defencemen, not known for their scoring and joining a team struggling with it, can learn to drive offence by committee.
Radulov’s presence on the right wing last year proved to be important when Brendan Gallagher struggled through injury and inconsistency, and his addition of energy and vision was paramount to the Canadiens making the playoffs.
If Radulov balks at the Canadiens’ final offer, his production will be tough to replace, even if Gallagher finds his scoring touch again. The Canadiens’ right wing depth without Radulov consists of Gallagher and Andrew Shaw. That’s it.
The prospect cupboard is virtually bare, with no real NHL-ready players to step in to fill that gap. That means a trade or free-agent signing would again be the solution, as the Habs haven’t even given the impression that it’s a slot that needs to be filled in the same way they have done with the defence.
The names still available at right wing — Ales Hemsky and Jaromir Jagr — don’t inspire the confidence of Radulov. Other wingers include Patrick Marleau and Jussi Jokinen, also downgrades compared to Radulov, who won’t be inclined to play the right side or behind Drouin, Pacioretty and Galchenyuk on the left.
Thomas Vanek, after a resurgent season with the Detroit Red Wings, is unlikely to seek another tour in Montreal.
It would seem that Bergevin might feel Markov has been replaced, and while that is dubious at best, at least there are enough candidates to fill the roster slots in theory. The right wing aches for the return of Radulov.
Oh, and that centre problem is still a massive concern for a team that has been soundly beaten up the middle for years.
It’s expected Radulov will make his decision today. Markov could linger longer. Both have a list of interested suitors.
With cap space to spare before the new season officially roled around, Montreal — that is to say, Bergevin — shouldn’t have let it get this far.
If the Habs keep one, who would you pick?
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