Friday, October 12, 2007

The Habs future and the two Andreis – Part 1: Andrei the First

The Habs had a great start, the bandwagon is rolling. Despite it being almost exactly what I would have wished for, why do I always feel like getting off this crazy hay-cart?

It is while I was examining some of the material from those getting carried away that it dawned on me – I can disagree with the emotional flash flood and still be positive at the same time.

Let me explain, while I am as excited as anyone about Carey Price and Chris Higgins, I guess I feel that in terms of brewing the Stanley Cup champs we all want, we still need a few more ingredients. In fact, I feel we have them, but they are getting a bit slighted and overlooked at the moment. Hence, the two Andreis – two cornerstones of the team Gainey is building.

I'm staring with Andrei the First, as in Markov. The most important player in our current team, and someone who will be counted on to be Doug Harvey to Price's Jacques Plante if we're to go anywhere.

Andrei Markov was born in Voskresensk (a small town outside Moscow) in the USSR in 1978. His professional hockey career began in earnest in 1995 when he joined up with Voskresensk Khimik upon turning 17. Spotted by Habs scouts in 1998, he was drafted deep into that draft in the 6th round, 146 selections after first-round bust Eric Chouinard.

His fortunes went from long-shot prospect to top-notch prospect when he moved from his hometown club to the legendary Moscow Dynamo in 1998. In his fourth year in the men's league at the tender age of 20, he began to turn up the offensive skills that lingered from his youth as a forward. 21 points for third on his team (in 38 games). To give you an idea how good that was – his teammate Maxim Afinogenov (forward) also tallied 21, with less goals. The next year was better with 23 points in 29 games. That year he won defenseman of the year and MVP of the entire Russian (men's) league.

[So you can see why saying something like Carey Price has been the only exciting prospect the Canadiens have had in 15 odd years is a bit of a slight to a player like Markov, who despite being drafted low, ascended to can't miss star in 2 years].

With his pedigree he then made the successful adaptation to North American hockey, if not life. He was shuttled back and forth to Quebec his first two seasons, but by 2002-2003 was establishing himself as the number one offensive guy on the blue line. However, for the Canadiens, it was his eventual mastery of some English along with his improved defense that made him most valuable. This summer he became the most expensive signing in Canadiens history.

On top of all that is the Koivuesque influence Andrei has on the team's fortunes. When he's out, we lose more. I also spend a lot more time on the edge of the couch calling for zone clearances and hoping for someone that could make a pass on the PP.

In terms of the team's future, he is the foundation. Goaltending will always be a focus, just the nature of the position. But having a defenseman that can clear the zone, thread a pass, skate for miles and play more than 30 minutes makes team building that much easier – just ask Detroit, Anaheim and New Jersey. He is also capable of erasing our memories of Sheldon Souray because he can play the PP many different ways – playing the shot from the point or the pass to the open man with equal skill. Dare I say it, Price's career while mentored by Kolzig and Huet will depend very much on this man, and I am confident that means it's in good hands.

So far this season, he has played very well. He's racked up 5 points in the three games, has been among the three stars chosen by reporters, and has been in Tobalev's "Dome Hockey squad" twice already. If Komisarek wants to win the Norris trophy as he says, he shouldn't have to look much further than his current partner for an example and if he gets close his competition for the nod.

Markov is only rivalled by Koivu for the title of best player to be developed by the Habs from their own drafting since the likes of Roy, Desjardins and Schneider were in the bleu, blanc, rouge. Higgins, Komisarek, Ryder and co represent the next generation, but will need a few more lines on their resume before surpassing the man from Voskesensk.

So the next time they announce the three stars, and Markov steps out. Let's let him know how much we appreciate his skill, his effort and his commitment to our Canadiens.

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