It may seem to be a bit aggressive to look ahead to next season while the Montreal Canadiens are in the midst of an unexpected playoff push that certainly deserves the full focus of the fanbase, but it is hard to ignore and not speak of an opportunity to right a historical wrong with the Montreal franchise.
With the swift elimination of the reigning Gagarin Cup champions, Ak Bars Kazan, in the first round of the KHL playoffs against Omsk Avangard, Andrei Markov has completed his contractual obligation to the club he signed with in 2017 after failing to come to terms with Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens on a contract extension.
In his first season back home, Markov captured what has eluded him his entire career: a league championship. Although not the Stanley Cup, the Gagarin Cup is a prestigious conquest for the Russian-based league, second maybe only to Olympic gold. Along the way, Markov put up 33 points in 55 games and took part in the KHL All-Star Game. His production may have faded once the playoffs came, with just three points in 19 playoff contests, but he played his role of a leader to perfection.
At the start of his second season, he was entrusted to lead a split squad through a rigorous physical training regimen with more in common with military conditioning techniques than your standard off-ice hockey training. He remained in remarkable physical shape, but unquestionably time had caught up with him. He slowed down offensively, with only 14 points in 49 regular-season games, as injuries began to pile up toward the end of the season. He returned for the ill-fated playoff run, putting up zero points in a four-game sweep. Despite all of this, he was still entrusted by his head coach to play 20 minutes or more per game.
Clearly Markov’s career is winding down. But now that he’s once again an unrestricted free agent, is there a willingness for Markov to explore a return to the NHL, and possibly to once again don the bleu-blanc-rouge? Is there interest from Marc Bergevin to bring back the 40-year-old defenceman? Can the two parties set aside their personal differences long enough to come to an agreement?
The relationship between Markov and Bergevin got complicated when Markov’s long-time agent Sergei Berezin was decertified by the NHLPA, and Markov decided to just represent himself. When negotiations broke down between Markov and Bergevin, the player felt disrespected by a process he was unfamiliar with, and possibly not prepared for.
In an interview with Jonathan Bernier of Le Journal de Montreal after his return to Russia, you could tell that emotions were still running high for Markov. “As an athlete and a person who spent the last 16 year of his life in Montreal, I would have liked to be shown some respect, it’s all I asked of the team,” Markov said. “There were almost no discussions with Montreal. I received two or three offers from them. They said ‘either you sign or you don’t.’ Nobody listened to me, nobody wanted to hear from me.”
But right up until the end of negotiations, Markov wore the Canadiens jersey while training. His intentions were clear, but so was his perceived value to the team. He only wanted to get what he believed he was worth.
A few days after this photo was posted, Markov was announced as a member of the KHL’s Ak Bars, getting the contract he was looking for, and the rift between Montreal and Markov appeared permanent.
Although initially emotional and bitter (understandable since he had to displace his entire family to Russia) his tone softened the following year. Once again Le Journal de Montreal caught up with Markov in Russia.
“I know you’re trying to put pressure on him. It’s easy to do it because of [the Canadiens’] situation, but he’s a good person and a good general manager,” Markov said in a phone interview. “I wish the best for the Canadiens. I am sure he will find the solutions to make the team better next season and the next.”
A solution to shore up the left side of the defence for next season might in fact be a short-lived return of Markov to the fold. This would allow the youngsters in the organization to develop at their own pace while the Canadiens squeeze out the last drops of Markov’s hockey career in a position of weakness for the team. The PR would certainly be very welcome, as Markov is only 10 games short of hitting 1,000 NHL games, all with Montreal.
Even back in 2017, Markov was quite open that this was something that he wanted to accomplish still. “It was a milestone that I wanted to hit, but I didn’t manage to do it in Montreal. Maybe it will come one day, but for now I will my honour my deal with Kazan to the end.” If Markov were to hit the 1,000-games milestone, he would be only the sixth player in the franchise’s illustrious history to do so entirely with the Canadiens, and the first in 30 years.
The other players, with the year in which they reached the mark, are:
- Bob Gainey (1986-87)
- Larry Robinson (1985-86)
- Henri Richard (1970-71)
- Claude Provost (1969-70)
- Jean Béliveau (1969-70)
There is certainly an example in recent years of Bergevin giving a proper NHL send-off to veterans. Tomas Plekanec finished off his career with Montreal this season, signing in the summer after having been dealt to Toronto at the 2018 trade deadline. Plekanec returned in order to hit the 1,000-games-played milestone in the NHL, followed swiftly by a contract termination, allowing him to return overseas to play.
The same sort of path can be envisioned for Markov, who could return for a quick stint at the start of the year to hit his milestones, and then return to Russia having received a proper celebration of his Canadiens career. He needs 10 more games for 1,000.
But we have to be realistic when talking about this. Markov is no longer the player he was. He’s slower, but at worst he can be an early season nostalgia act. At best, however, he could still anchor the power play and give an honest contribution every game. His intelligence being his best asset might actually be to his benefit despite a physical slowdown. A pairing with Shea Weber might be too slow and exploitable by other teams, so if Markov were to return, it would likely be in a third-pairing role to mentor Noah Juulsen rather than play 20 hard minutes alongside Jeff Petry or Weber.
This could possibly be the last chance for Markov to return to Montreal, and the last chance for us to see him back. It’s not going to be a $6 million contract like the ones he held before heading to the KHL, and it wouldn’t be a big role he was brought in to play. All that’s left to do now is to wait and see if it actually happens.