A very good article was posted today by JT at "The H Does Not Stand For Habs" that addresses the issue of expectation in Habsburg (thank Dennis Kane).
The article stresses some important points for us fans who eagerly await the return of Andrei Markov, the primary message that a lot of time off will have caused rust that will take some time to shake. I fully agree, but there's a but isn't there.
The but of course is that the Canadiens have been managing this season on the back line with essentially three rookies and a sophomore. When Gill was out it was three rookies, a sophomore and an AHLer.
All of them have been doing a formidable job considering the circumstances, but Markov rust or not is nearly guaranteed to offer a better option than one or two of that crew (and I think nearly makes that statement very conservative).
It's easy to forget what Andrei Markov does. It's been easy because it's been so long that we've really had our memories jogged. The notion remains that the Habs win more when he is in the line up (which I think used to be true, but not for his most recent half season), but the forgotten bit is why and how.
Did you know for instance that during his last half season (2009-10) Markov was on the ice for 3.89 GF/60, which given his minutes played was well over a goal per game? Only Pacioretty can match that level of prolific production (about the same this year and last) and Markov's closest peer (Subban) as good as he's been has been clipping closer to 2.75 GF/60 the past two years.
That season, where there was rust to be shaken as well (severed tendons), he paced the PP to nearly 10 GF/60 during his half season with the team. Last season, a good PP had several members who fit in the 8 to 9 GF/60 range on the PP (helpful to have a QB like Wisniewski), but this season the highest achievers are punching about 5-6 GF/60.
Markov was involved in 44 goals in 2009-10 in 53 games all told. This on a Canadiens team is forward level offensive contribution.
While I think there will be rust for Markov, I think it will affect certain areas of his game more than others.
Defensive coverage? I'm not really looking forward to seeing him paired against the top lines right away.
Skating? I'd be surprised if a few hearty practices bring his legs to full game shape.
But knowing when to send a pass across the middle to an open Cammalleri? Or not employing a pump fake and 180 degree wind up for every PP manoeuvre? Andrei's ability to make crisp cross zone breakout passes and quick reversals on the PP don't come from his superior skating ability or stickhandling or anything physical. Rather they come from his instincts for the game and his propensity to see a pass before the receiver often does. These instincts are things I'm confident his shaky knees will not affect, these instincts have been trained over many years to reach this expert level.
Oh sure, it won't be first PP, first game. But I don't think we'll have to wait too long to notice the difference in PP danger following Andrei's return.
There's more good news
I've focused on Andrei Markov's offensive contributions on purpose. That's where I believe the rust will affect him least, and that's where I believe his talent is truly unique.
But there's another good reason. Since Markov's extended hiatus began, the Canadiens have built a fairly solid defensive system, manned ably by the defencemen in it and Carey Price. Subban, I'll never get tired of saying, stands out more in the defensive zone than any. Hal Gill has little use anywhere but the defensive zone, but there he uses his talents well. Josh Gorges has grown without Markov and plays like a star in some of his functions.
The Canadiens this year have managed to put together an astounding success on the PK. More than anything this stands out as the team's main strength.
This is good news for the team, of course, but also for Andrei Markov.
IN the old days, Markov played in every situation, PP, ES, PK. He shone in all facets of play, but if there was a weaker point, I might have pointed to PK. The team he steps back onto should allow for him to ease back into his NHL life mostly free from PK for a while, perhaps for a long time, to concentrate on being the link between puck recovery and dangerous breakout. This is no longer a team pretending Mike Komisarek or Sheldon Souray or Mathieu Dandenault can be his partners, this is a team that gives him more licence to explore those offensive instincts.
I don't think Markov will change the season for the Habs in 5 minutes. But I do think he'll change the dynamic of the team significantly within a few games of return.
I think other teams will have to re-evaluate the ways they approach Habs games, and perhaps even the freedom with which they are willing to use illegal play and risk penalty. I think all will benefit from a shift of responsibility to Markov, what each does best in better balance.
I look forward to it.