Monday, May 28, 2007

As Canadien as Possible #3: The Strong, Silent Type

It’s a beautiful day in Habistan. Why, you ask? Because after a totally pointless week off, the playoffs finally restart tonight? One more gasp of glorious hockey before the long, dry summer? Nope. Sure, we’ll be watching the playoffs, but we’re hoping that this will be the first series where a rip in the fabric of the space-time continuum causes both teams to lose. No, we’re not dancing on the balcony in the unseasonably cold weather for the playoffs, we’re dancing because the Canadiens have just resigned Andrei Markov.

We here at the Theory adore Markov. We once, in a fit of joy after a particularly excellent power-play, declared that we would happily have his babies in order to populate the world with good defensemen. We retracted this statement immediately, of course, due to wounded looks from certain 3rd parties who were watching the game with us, but the underlying sentiment holds. This is the best news that Habs fans have gotten in a long time, and we’re going to enjoy it, dammit, because it might well be the best news of the entire off-season. So, in celebration, here are ten reasons to love Andrei Markov and welcome his continued presence on the Canadiens’ blue line.

1. Skills. It could and probably should begin and end with this, for superlative ability is the best reason to want any hockey player on your team, and Markov has a great skill-set. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many technical problems with his game. He’s an excellent skater, which makes for a very mobile and well-positioned defensive style, and also makes him a can’t-miss partner for any other defenseman, but especially a more physical one like Komisarek, whose hitting sometimes leaves him off-position. Markov’s passes are fast and on-target, which makes for good transitions into the offensive zone. And he’s got an impressive shot as well, although he uses it less than he could since he’s usually played more to set up Souray or the forwards than to score on his own initiative.

2. Hockey-sense. Habs-fans breathe a sigh of relief pretty much every shift Markov is on the ice, and this is primarily not because he’s skilled, but because he’s smart. The man just doesn’t make dumb plays, he doesn’t get pressured or flustered, and he doesn’t let himself get shut down. He’s not a flashy player- if you’re not Habistani yourself, you could probably be forgiven for not noticing him too much, but that’s because he’s so good at being where he should be and making the right decisions that he makes the spectacular look natural, even intuitive. But believe me, during the tensest, highest-pressure moments in a game, there is nobody you want on the ice more.

3. Reliability. Last year, when the Canadiens were characterized by nothing so much as streaky, schizophrenic play, Markov was total consistency, as (I gather) he has been for much of his career. Again, the lack of glamour to his game means that people sometimes overlook this, but he’s the guy who shows up every night and always plays his best. I could count on one hand the number of bad nights Markov had last season, and I don’t have enough digits on my body to do that for most of the Canadiens. Moreover, while he missed a few games due to the flu, he’s not injury-prone, so it seems reasonable to expect this consistency to continue.

4. Team-cohesion. On the ice and off it, Markov is a good teammate- not in a stand-up-and-make-a-speech, big-leader kind of way, but a solid, good hockey player. Quiet and generally averse to media attention, he doesn’t get wrapped up in his own ego or the celebrity status of playing in Montreal, and is clearly more invested in the team’s success than his personal status. He plays well with rookies and veterans alike, adapting his game to the best benefit of his co-defender, and pretty much everyone whose been paired with him in the past couple of years says they’ve been better for it. The Habs have a lot of baby defensemen to consider bringing up in the next few years, and having Markov on the team mitigates the risks inherent in introducing inexperienced young players into the lineup.

5. Le Club De Hockey Canadien. Simple fact: Markov likes the Habs. Weird, huh? We’ve heard a lot this year about problems with the team, players leaving (Perezhogin), or talking about leaving (Samsonov, Kovalev, and even- in what we can only hope was a brief moment of weakness- Koivu), or leaving and saying how great it is to be gone (Ribeiro, Rivet), so hearing a guy say he likes playing on this team, and then seeing him back it up by actually staying here… wow, that’s almost a miracle in itself. We all know this much is true: players are better when they’re playing on a team they like, and we don’t want anybody, no matter how good, to play for this glorious, disastrous club unless they want it. Markov, God bless his masochistic soul, wants it. And related to this:

6. Montreal. Again, you’re always hearing about how difficult it is to play in this city, how hard it is for us to sign UFAs, the mercurial fans, the ravenous media, and so on. But, lo and behold, here’s a player who has been here his whole career, who knows as well as anyone the ups and downs of living and playing here, who could have chosen from a wide variety of other teams and cities if he’d tested the open market, but chose- almost without even considering the alternatives- to play in Montreal. That deserves a little bit of special appreciation from Habistanis.

7. What Russian problem? Ever since Kovalev maybe-gave that interview wherein he maybe-said that the Habs organization mistreats its Russian players, there’s been a lot of anxiety about whether or not this is true. Between the Samsonov and Kovalev disasters, and then Perezhogin leaving, people have been whispering that we have some variety of Russian Problem, and that this might potentially cause misgivings about playing here for our up-and-coming rookies- the Kostitsyns, Grabovski, Emelin and Valentenko. But, in my view, the problems we’ve had with certain players have nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with difficult personalities and/or team-structure, and hopefully Markov provides a good counter-example to Kovalev’s maybe-claims about anti-Russian bias, i.e. that the organization will respect talent and effort and reward it fairly, no matter the cultural background of the player.

8. Faith in the system. Markov says a lot about the best parts of the Habs’ drafting and player-development strategies. Over the course of this year I’ve become a big believer in the farm system, I think that it’s infinitely more likely that this team will be improved from within than from without, and Markov illustrates some of the reasons. Firstly, the Habs have excellent European scouting and draft well in the lower rounds, and (as those who follow the AHL know) it’s been paying off in the form of a very talented farm team, as well as an impressive array of younger players on the current roster. But I also think that the fact that Markov likes playing here, and is so good at handling playing here, is due to the fact that he came up here. It is indeed different to play for the Canadiens than to play for many other hockey teams, and it seems that- barring those players of local origin who are already familiar with the contours of the team- players who come here from other places can have a lot of trouble adjusting, even veterans who should be flexible. Markov is one of those who demonstrate that the Habs can make great players, rather than having to beg and plead and overpay to get them on the open market.

9. Future returns. He’s an excellent investment. Markov is only 28, has been improving steadily and shows only signs of getting better. He’s already good enough to play on the top pairing of probably 25 teams in this League, and it isn’t unreasonable to believe that over the four years of this contract he’ll close in on the remaining 5.

10. Cost-effectiveness. Markov’s new contract is pretty big- $20 millionish over 4 years- so he’s broken the ‘Koivu-barrier’ and become the team’s highest-paid member (although that could well change before the summer is out). But on the grand scale of the NHL, and for how valuable he is to this team, it’s a very reasonable amount of money. Very likely he could have gotten more on the open market, probably even more from the Habs if he’d decided to play hardball, but this is that rarest of phenomena in hockey- a fair deal for all concerned. No regrets, all around.

There’s a little bit of hyperbole in all this- Markov’s a very, very good hockey player, but he’s not the be all and end all, and he’s certainly not going to solve all the Habs’ many problems. But it’s no exaggeration to say that he’s one of the Canadiens’ best players and that resigning him was the single most important thing the Habs had to do to ensure that the team moves forward rather than backward next season. Hooray and Hallelujah!

1 comment:

kazmojo said...

There's an old hockey adage that you build a team from the goalie on out. The Habs are set between the pipes for quite a long time: Huet and Halak this year, with Danis as a ready injury replacement. Then Price in years to come.

Then there's the blueline. Markov is indeed a huge piece, and works very well with Komisarek as the #1 pairing. Dandenault and Bouillon make for a decent third pairing. In between, we need someone like Komisarek to pair with Streit. Streit can move the puck with the best of them, and makes smart plays defensively too -- but he's just not big enough I think.

We get that one piece in place, and we move out of mediocrity. It's just too bad we lost both Hainsey and Beauchemin on waivers -- with the latter as the #3 on the potential Stanley Cup champions.