Monday, March 07, 2011

To Defend At All Costs?

In the wake of the trade deadline and yet another injury to a Habs defenceman, I’m sure many of us have been thinking about Andrei Markov and his forthcoming contract negotiations. It seems to be taken more or less as gospel truth that Markov will don the CH once again this fall to lead this team through the 2011-12 campaign. And obviously, as fans, we all hope this is the case. Markov has been our best player for several years now, is currently the longest-serving member of the team, and would be captain if he had any interest in the role whatsoever.

Watching Tuesday’s game via video stream, I watched some idiots “discuss” hockey in the accompanying chat room. Something said in there seeded an interesting question in my mind – what is Markov worth on the market right now? He basically hasn’t played for over an entire (regular) season of hockey, suiting up for a mere 52 games this season and last. With so little playing time to judge his worth, what can we expect the market will offer for him?

Markov was signed in an era when people (OK, the Leafs’ management) were willing to sign a mediocre defenceman like Jeff Finger for $3.5M – but before we judge, recall we were more than willing to give $5.5M to Roman Hamrlik. I like Hamrlik, and he’s been an absolute quarterhorse for us during Markov’s injuries, but I don’t think he’s twice as good as, say, Hal Gill and his $2.25M. I think in many ways these days are finished – while Lidstrom might still be able to command $6.2 million, other top free agent defencemen like Jovanovski ($6M), Hamrlik ($5.5M), Brewer ($4.5M) and Hannan ($4.5M) will be unlikely to meet their current salaries on their next contracts when up-and-coming stars like Doughty and Byfuglien are taking under $3.5M. Then again, over $7M for Brian Campbell argues against this, and we are all aware that NHL GMs are an unpredictable lot.

Another factor is judging his worth. While he is invaluable to the loyal Montreal fan base, Markov’s reputation around the league right now is probably more along the lines of a talented defenceman with great hockey sense, good skating, and an excellent offensive upside; but not strong on hitting and rather injury-prone. While we regard him as one of the best defencemen in the league (and rightfully so, in my opinion), other teams might be less enthusiastic about him given his medical record. This may work in our favour to depress his perceived value in the market. Of course, it might also mean that the Islanders are willing to sign him for a contract comparable to Campbell’s based in his 2008-9 numbers, just to keep themselves over the salary cap.

Finally, there’s the consideration of what Markov wants. There’s a phenomenon in psychology known as “projection,” where we assume other people have motivations, emotions and thought processes that mirror our own. This leads us to make false assumptions about what actually motivates people to do the things they do. Such as assuming that the loyalty our fanbase feels towards a player like Markov is reciprocated, and that Markov would like nothing better than to stay in Montreal – and hey, he might even give us a deal on the salary as a result of said inferred loyalty. Needless to say, this is a dangerous way of thinking and is rarely accurate. However, his near-legendary distaste for media appearances and interviews leaves us mostly in the dark about what he actually wants. He’s said he’d like to stay in Montreal, however let’s keep in mind that if this were untrue, he’d be unlikely to say so in an interview.

Given our play without him over this season and last, I ask the most blasphemous question of all: do we need Markov? I would suggest that we can get Markov back next season for a salary comparable to his current $5.75M, and this would be a good thing. I think he is one of the most talented defencemen in the league, a leader, and a big-time contributor to what success we’ve had over the last decade. However, if his agent gets too attached to numbers like Campbell’s, my loyalty will only go so far – certainly not past the $6 million mark. Seeing us win games and go on magnificent playoff runs without him has convinced me that Markov might not be the key part of the team he once was.

Let us know in the comments – Do we still need Markov? And what should we be willing to pay to keep him?

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