As the Montreal Canadiens' playoff run went on last year, one of the biggest concerns was the pronounced drop-off in Andrei Markov's play.
At 36 years of age, some were worried that this signified the end of his stellar career, as it had for various 35-and-older players before him. A great season, scoring 10 goals and 40 assists, looked to be the last glimpse at greatness from one of the best offensive defencemen the Montreal Canadiens have had in their storied history.
Markov's play to start the 2015-16 season has put those concerns to rest, as he's on pace for the best offensive performance of his entire career.
After contributing 50 points last season, the career Hab is currently on pace for 65.
His five-on-five scoring rate is off to about the same start this season as it was in the last, with seven full-strength points compared to six though 19 games a year ago.
Markov accrued half of his points on what was a generally dismal man-advantage last year, managing to be among the most productive defencemen in the NHL while part of the league's 25th-ranked special teams offences.
The increase in his totals this year over last is the Canadiens' revamped power play. Having just three power play points through 19 games last season, Markov has already scored eight points in man-advantage situations this year.
It's not just an astounding five-point outing versus the Buffalo Sabres earlier in the season inflating those numbers. Not only is Markov scoring at a higher rate, he's also contributing on a more regular basis this season. He had points in just six of the Habs' first 19 games last year, but has been on the scoresheet in 11 of the opening 19 games of 2015-16.
While this regular-season showing has been great, the team will need Markov's offensive abilities in the games that really matter once the race for playoff positions comes to a close.
As mentioned in Markov's season preview, the best scenario for prolonged playoff success for the team is to use him more sparingly in the 82 games leading up to that point. He set a career high in five-on-five minutes player per game last year, and now that we've seen him through a significant portion of this one, it's clear that fatigue was a major reason for his post-season decline.
So how has that been approached by the coaching staff this season?
After averaging 24:30 of ice-time per game last season, Markov's time is down by over two minutes in the early going, to 22:24. That would mean Markov will have played about 172 fewer minutes once the playoffs begin if this trend continues.
The type of minutes Markov has been playing is also more attuned to his abilities this year, as his five-on-five minutes are down from 17:22 to 16:12 per game. He has also seen his time reduced on the penalty kill; from a defence-corps high of 2:30 of PK time per game last season to a fourth-ranked 1:48, as defensive duties on the penalty kill have largely been handled by Alexei Emelin and Jeff Petry.
Taking advantage of his offensive skills, his power play time is actually up from 3:12 to tenth-highest in the NHL at 3:30, and that increased time, coupled with the extreme shift in fortunes, has him sitting second in the league behind only John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars in power play production from the back end.
Andrei Markov still has a lot to give the Montreal Canadiens, and the coaching staff is doing a more responsible job of ensuring his minutes aren't used up before April rolls around.