Who could have possibly imagined a worse start to the Montreal Canadiens 2009-2010 season than losing their top defenseman and leader during the first game of the season to the arch-rival Leafs?
For the second time in six months Andrei Markov suffered a significant injury at the Air Canada Center that threatens to make the next three to four months a very interesting and perhaps depressing one for the Canadiens. It was only last April that Markov was hit awkwardly from behind by former teammate Mikhail Grabovski that effectively put a halt to any chance of Montreal upsetting Boston in the first round of the playoffs. This time around it was a fluke injury as Markov and goalie Carey Price collided after a Toronto goal.
For Habs supporters it is a well known fact what Andrei Markov means, not only to the Montreal defense, but to the team as a whole. It was just a few weeks ago there were serious rumours about Markov being named the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens. To put things into a (nightmarish) numerical perspective, the Habs are 7-23-2 with Markov out of the lineup since the end of the lockout.
… And as if things couldn’t get worse. The following night in Buffalo during the first period, defenseman Ryan O’Byrne suffered a foot injury and will be out of the lineup for five to six weeks. O’Byrne who was a favourite target of the boo-birds in Montreal last season, after scoring on his own net, had an extremely promising pre-season and was looking to have cemented a regular spot in the Habs defensive core for the 2009-2010 season.
Leading up to the 2009-2010 campaign the media and fan focus was on the arrival of a new coaching staff, a flurry of new free agent signings, the exit of Saku Koivu and whom might be the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens; how quickly things can change. Within only a week of the season commencing the initial optimism has been firmly jolted and the question of how to plug the defensive holes in front of an ever increasingly, fragile Carey Price are being debated.
Jacques Martin, who is known for his defensive style coaching, is facing a crisis right now on the blue-line. To try and ease this crisis Bob Gainey went out and acquired Marc-Andre Bergeron last week, signing the former Minnesota Wild player to a one-year contract. Last year with the Wild, Bergeron accumulated 32 points in 72 games, and is recognized for having a booming shot. However, Bergeron will have to spend some time in Hamilton on conditioning stint duty before possibly being called up by the Canadiens.
During the next three to four months, newly acquired veterans, such as Hal Gill and Paul Mara, will be asked to take a leading role along with Roman Hamrlik and Josh Gorges in providing some stability to a vulnerable Habs’ defensive unit. Unfortunately the Yannick Weber experiment did not go according to plan and Shawn Belle is the latest defensive call-up to try and fit in.
This makeshift defense will have to come together – and come together quickly – if they want to remain in the playoff race going into February, and beyond. With a home-stretch on the horizon, a smart and tactful coach at the reigns and solid character players in the dressing room, now is the time for this new team to establish themselves at the Bell Centre and prove that they can win hockey games without Andrei Markov in the lineup. Let the Montreal experimental brigade take 5 of (?) on Thursday night, without Markov and O’Byrne begin.