Over his career, Andrei Markov established himself as one of the better playmakers in the NHL. Behind his memorable plays and the simpler ones, behind his success, was a seamless integration of multiple aspects of the passing game: awareness, anticipation, footwork, deception, and command. It was the most distinctive element of his game.
His setup ability was built from his multitude of skills, but wasn’t formulaic. Markov adapted to each situation to find the most optimal play, and he arguably only got better at setting up teammates as the years passed, proving that much of that side of the game is mental. We’ll look at the individual components of his passing game to see what made him one of the top point-producing defencemen in Montreal Canadiens history.
Identifying and veiling options
The first step to making an effective pass is to identify options before receiving the puck. It cuts down the reaction time needed to send it back to a teammate, which helps hit open lanes ahead of defensive movements.
Markov always had his head up. He knew the position of teammates and defenders and was a threat to pass in multiple directions at all times. When space opened in front of him, he advanced into it, but made sure to veil his passing intentions to avoid defensive counters when holding the puck.
On regroups, he would keep the puck at his hip, in a neutral position that allowed him to hit any teammate on the ice with a short blade movement. This stance also kept opponents guessing as to which pass he would attempt. Markov looked straight ahead, but not directly at teammates; he didn’t want defenders to read his eyes. To throw them off further, he would often fake passes, bringing back his stick and raising one leg like he was about to shoot the puck far up ice.
In other words, opponents facing Markov couldn’t use any of the information that he gave them to act defensively. They could never guess the movements of attackers behind them and position to counter his passes.
Preparing the pass
Players pass with their stick, but also with their feet. Markov wasn’t the most fleet of foot, but he knew how to use movement. He understood that when a player moves, new lanes open. Moving makes it easier to hit targets through traffic.
By sliding laterally, Markov distanced himself from the defence, creating more space to receive. Then, as defenders adjusted and dragged themselves toward him, his motion also opened space for teammates. He created new passing angles to reach them while also enabling their next play (more on this later).
This skill served Makov especially well on the power play, where he would walk down the boards from the point to find cross-ice seams.
Anticipating the play
Anticipation makes or breaks a passing play. In the rapid pace of hockey, players have to send the puck to teammates as they move to get open, before the defence has a chance to respond.
In the video below, you realize Markov foresees attackers popping open in the slot or opposite him on the other side of the ice, and chooses to hit them with the puck as they start their movement. His quick decisions allow the puck to connect with shooters’ sticks — or skates — for goals. That fast rhythm meant that he required a high mental engagement from others.
The last clip shows an example of Markov sending a one-touch pass cross-ice where a shooter should have immediately moved. It was the best play to make in this situation, but Phillip Danault missed his cue and saw the feed miss him to his left.
Passing and deceiving
The defenceman could connect with teammates in a variety of ways. He could stretch a pass through multiple zones, lob it above the defence to a streakin forward, or use the boards to the same effect. He could also bounce the puck off the glass, not as a dump mechanism, but as a legitimate passing tactic.
He could just as easily move the puck with his backhand as his forehand, often redirecting it with a quick one-touch — his trademark move.
On top of his ability to veil his options before passing, deception was also ingrained in his actual motion.
Markov used a number of different feints to confuse defenders before the puck fired off his stick. He signalled to defenders that he had committed to a play with his entire body, before switching it at the very end of his chain of movements. For example, he could transform a shot motion, inside which he would drop his shoulder and raise a leg, by rolling the puck off his blade to hook it laterally toward a teammate at the last second.
He also performed more subtle misdirection. In one clip in the video above, standing at the top of the offensive zone, he waved his stick in front of him before receiving the puck. An inconsequential move at first look, but the defender still registered it. Going into a blocking position for half a second, thinking Markov would shoot, it delayed the opponent’s defensive switch toward Shea Weber. Weber loaded up his cannon in preparation for the return pass, and scored.
Great passers master all of the elements above. They identify, anticipate, and veil options, prepare passes with footwork, and deceive opponents. But the very best passers add another skill, an extra layer that lifts them past even their more talented peers: they enable the plays of teammates.
Arpon Basu wrote a great article on Markov’s ability to do just that, including quotes from his teammates. The most interesting praises were about passing speed and particular spins that really highlight what kind of skill Markov possessed.
Markov didn’t only facilitate in setting up his team’s offence. He commanded. The defenceman saw the best possible play and sent the puck to teammates in ways that forced them to move their stick to make that play — one they might not have seen themselves.
In the first sequences of the video above, Markov passes ahead of teammates to allow them to either take the puck in stride to attack the offensive zone or deflect it in the net. But in the following clips, you can then see him adapt the pass angle to move the stick of teammates into better position to make a certain play.
By sending the puck to the left side of Dale Weise standing in front of the net, he forced the forward to use his backhand to deflect the puck instead of his forehand. A backhand tip made more sense in that situation for a few reasons: a defender had moved his stick into the passing lane to Weise’s forehand, another one also stood on that same forehand side behind the forward, and the goalie had moved himself to the right (again, forehand side) to look over the shoulder of Weise. In other words, the left or backhand side had more opening. That’s where Markov zipped his pass to, influencing Weise to switch his stick to score from a backhand tip instead.
In the next clip, Markov showed he understood the shooting preference of Alex Galchenyuk. On the right side of the ice, Galchenyuk loved to get the puck behind him to take shots — as exemplified by the first play. So Markov, coming across the ice, consistently hit him in that exact spot. If Markov had sent the pass to the front skate of the forward or ahead of him he would have been forced to reposition the puck before shooting, slowing down his release.
Andrei Markov consistently thought of the next play as he passed and strategized to set up others for success. He was rightfully nicknamed The General. Considering his career and particular talents, no other label would ever have been more fitting.
We probably won’t ever see another player like him, but we can take solace in his legacy and the multiple great passes that will serve as teaching clips for future generations of playmakers.