It could not come at a better time. With the Canadiens on the road, their struggle to return to winning will be met with less all around angst and ire than it might have in the confines of Centre Bell. Markov can adjust and find his legs in time to be the returning hero the baying mass expects by the New Year's return home.
In the face of this return, it is natural to get excited. Still, many issue caution, patience. Yet, the reluctance to pin too much hop on Markov's return, is in my opinion, taking things too far the other way.
Now I am not saying that Andrei will come in and eclipse the performance of every player from either team as he sometimes would in full health. However, let's remember what this means in practical terms: a healthy Markov returns to join the 5 other healthy D, bumping one of Bergeron, Gill or Mara to the kerb. Achilles tendon r not, that's an upgrade for this team. Achilles tendon or not, Markov's passes are still several orders of magnitude more accurate than any, which means standing still he's a massive improvement at 6th Dman.
As it's been so long, let's just remember who Markov is (as per the season preview):
Some things to note from Andrei's stats:
1) Offensive explosion
The last 3 years show the continued progression of Andrei Markov into the ranks of elite offensive defencemen. In fact, his 171 points over that span are second best in the NHL – lagging behind only Nicklas Lidstrom.
(Only Bergeron has come close in this department for the Habs, and off the PP, he's been less helpful. Barring passing amnesia, Markov's impact should be tangible)
2) Defensive steadiness
Not quite so elite in preventing goals, and perhaps the reason he never gets a Norris nod. Andrei's plus/minus is virtually neutral. As mentioned, most of his points do tend to come when he has been running the best PP in the league, so those ones don't appear in the black ledger. Even so, it might be nice to see Andrei escape the mediocrity of all those GA at ES and put up a big juicy +/- like that guy ahead of him in the points race.
(As I said, better than the guy who sits, so a positive contribution in the less minuses end of things too)
3) Takeaways, not hits
Those takeaway numbers may not mean anything to you, but you should know that they are very high. Last season, Markov was third in the league for Dmen in takeaways, as he was the year before. Three seasons ago, he was the best defender in that regard. This is because Markov prefers the poke check to the body check – and when you consider his partner, he makes a good case for the more subtle form of defence.
(My goodness how we've missed this. Maybe not tonight, but some time in the next couple of weeks you'll all be reminded of how a team really prevents itself getting pinned down for minutes at a time)
Who should Markov play with?
Those of you who can remember the preseason through all the tears that have transpired, will recall that I tried to rationally look at lines and pairings in an ideal, injury-free lineup. The way I did this was to trawl some data that many individuals collect and put on the internet and do some sums.
Basically, on last year's data I was able to broadly see whether a player made his partner better or worse offensively and defensively. I was also able to see what kind of partner (style) each player seamed to thrive with, or seemed to struggle with.
At that time, I selected Spacek for a number of reasons. Firstly, Markov played better with players who skated than with big lumbering men (including his usual partner). What seemed to let him be at his best is actually playing with a player more like himself, who can dart around and make a good quick pass – covering more ice with movement as opposed to mass. That for me ruled out O'Byrne and Gill right away, and based on the stats from when they played together, Hamrlik too.
I can see from the message boards that Martin might be considering Ryan O'Byrne to start with Markov this evening. I think this would be a mistake based on the above.
I wouldn't be so haughty if Jacques himself had not come to the Spacek conclusion himself. But that was his evaluation in October, as they started the season together and played most of the preseason together too.
The worry I suppose from some is that Markov and Spacek together means breaking up the current number one pairing of Hamrlik and Spacek. However, these two, while consistent aren't blowing anyone away, as they clock about 2.4 GA/60 - which also happens to be the team average on what I think we'd all agree has been an underwhelming defensive outfit so far. Breaking this combo up, therefore, should not be something to lament. it would be progress for the team, and progress hopefully for Spacek.
Incidentally, Hamrlik is not like Markov. He likes playing with a big guy. What's more, he's been excellent all along with O'Byrne - this season and last (ES and PK). If O'Byrne is to be deployed with a top pairing, it surely must be with Hamrlik.
Markov's comeback has more implications for the team than simply first pairing conundrums. It also brings about a potential log-jam of 8 defencemen on the team. One question is who might sit out. Another, considering it possible that 7 or even 8 Dmen could be dressed per game, is how many luxury items can the Canadiens afford to carry?
We already carry a fighter we don't use (or need), forwards who are doing apprenticeships in lifting the puck, and two young goalies still learning the ropes. When it comes to winning games, we are starting to run out of place for functional parts to fill the roles. Can we thus afford to play a defender whose only use is on the penalty kill and another whose only use is on the PP?
Or, should we be looking to better exploit the all-round ability of 4 or 5 of the other options?
We've all been complaining about this injury so long, it's time for the team to give us the proper ammo we need to back up those arguments on single player value. Let's hope it's a good one tonight.
Allez, Allez. Go Habs Go.