In the two years since Andrei Markov left the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens for Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL, he’s felt the highest of highs, and also crushing lows. In his first year back in the KHL as a full-time player, he helped pull off a phenomenal upset, capturing the Gagarin Cup over CSKA Moscow in five games. In that season Markov ranked fourth on his team in scoring, and was fifth among defenders in the entire KHL. Not bad for a then 39-year-old man with multiple major knee surgeries in his past.
At the same time, the Canadiens were trudging through one of their worst seasons on record, and ended up with the third overall pick in the NHL Draft.
This year, it looked like Father Time finally caught up with the Russian rearguard. Markov had just 14 points in 49 games. Ak Bars was bounced from the Gagarin Cup playoffs in four games, leaving Markov as a free agent in the KHL with his two-year contract complete.
Montreal, meanwhile, showed tremendous growth in 2018-19, rebounding from a bottom-five finish to one that one that has them contending for a wild-card berth. They became a dominant even-strength club, and with Carey Price back on his form they’ve become a more dangerous team every night.
Except on the power play, which ranks at the bottom of the NHL for efficiency, and has fans cringing every single time it takes the ice.
Whether they qualify for the playoffs or not, Montreal will enter the off-season with a need to bolster the left side of their defence. Victor Mete has been good with Shea Weber again, and Brett Kulak has been a pleasant surprise after starting the year in the AHL. They lack a proven offensive talent to supplement the production of Jeff Petry and the aforementioned Weber. Mete is still growing, and at the time of this article is still looking for his first NHL goal. Kulak isn’t meant to be a heavy offensive producer, and further down the pipeline most of the prospects who are about to graduate to the pros play the right side.
With a dreadful power play and a need for a proven offensive defender, it could be the right time for a reunion between Markov and the Canadiens. At 40 years old it shouldn’t be expected that Markov will be the defensive workhorse, but instead be a situational defender and power-play specialist.
According to the Russian website Sport Business Online, Markov will test the free-agent market and is eyeing a return to the NHL this summer. The following excerpt has been translated through Google, but has all the pertinent information included:
In “Ak Bars” are coming serious changes in the defensive line. First, the team will leave Markov. The defender, who returned to the KHL after 16 seasons in the NHL, intends to try his hand overseas again. Or move to one of the Moscow clubs. The last two seasons Markov was the most expensive player of the team with a salary of 150 million rubles. If in the first season there were no questions about the game for him — he returned and helped the Gagarin Cup team win — then for the second season they began to appear.
In short, Markov had a great first year, declined in the second, and despite being a great leader for Ak Bars, will almost assuredly not be returning to the club. He was Ak Bars’ most expensive player but his contract value worked out to roughly USD $2.3 million.
If we generously set the baseline for a one-year deal for Markov at an even $2 million, is it worth bringing him back to Montreal?
Currently CapFriendly has Montreal at $16.1 of available cap space for 2019-20, with just 30 of 50 available contract spots spoken for. There are a handful of pending free agents Montreal will want to re-sign, a list including Joel Armia, Artturi Lehkonen and Jordie Benn. Even with that, there isn’t any one person who is going to break the bank for Montreal this off-season. The cap is also projected to increase, providing an additional cushion, which gives them more room to afford a specialist on the roster.
Now the matter becomes finding a home for Markov, and that seems to be the easiest part in all of this. Markov more than likely slides onto the third pairing, and Montreal has the young horses that they can pair with him in a limited role. Any of Noah Juulsen, Cale Fleury, or Josh Brook could form a nice partnership on the bottom duo, and would be given easier assignments to take advantage of their skill sets.
Then, above all else, put him on the power play. It was his bread and butter for years, and given the general ineptitude of it since he left, he can only improve it going forward.
Finally, and this has nothing to do with on-ice talent, or goals, or possession metrics, it would be tragic to see a player of Markov’s calibre not reach 1000 games with the Canadiens, the only NHL club he’s ever known. Markov is just 10 games away from that mark, and sits in a tie with Guy Lapointe for second in scoring by a Canadiens defender with 572 points. He won’t be able to catch the legendary Larry Robinson’s mark for games played (1202) or points (883), but landing in second on that list, despite multiple lockouts, knee surgeries, and playing in a lower-scoring era is nothing short of incredible. Much like in Tomas Plekanec’s case, it’s worth rewarding Markov for his 16 seasons with the Canadiens, and his guidance on and off the ice would be a huge boost for the incoming group of prospects on defence.
He isn’t the player he once was. That isn’t a point of debate for a player drafted in 1998. But some things run deeper than just on-ice performance. Montreal has the pieces and the coaching staff in place to get the most from Markov in one final NHL run, and with the potential positives he brings, it’s hard to ignore the impact he could make.