During his first interview with the media after the Montreal Canadiens concluded their 2010-11 exhibition season in early October, Andrei Markov was his usual reticent self. When asked by the media when he would be returning from his knee ligament surgery, which he had in May, Markov sheepishly replied, "That’s my big secret." Originally, the timetable for his return was approximately six months, thus keeping him out of the Habs’ lineup until November. However, now it is only mid-October, and the hockey rumor mill is suggesting that Andrei may be back in the Canadiens’ lineup by Saturday’s game against the Ottawa Senators. For all Habs fans, this news is simply fantastic because Andrei Markov’s value to the Montreal Canadiens cannot be understated: He is the undisputed powerplay quarterback, one of the top penalty-killing defenceman, and, simply put, one of the greatest “silent” leaders in the NHL.
To the media, Markov has become known as a man of few words. When he first arrived in the NHL in 2000-01, Andrei’s main reason for keeping silent was that his grasp of English was almost non-existent. After bouncing back and forth between the Quebec Citadelles of the AHL and the Montreal Canadiens for the better part of two seasons, 2001-2003, the shy 6′, 205lb defenceman–who was a forward during his younger days in Russia–found the English language difficult to comprehend, and even more challenging to speak. Moreover, Markov was thrust into the bilingual metropolis of Montreal, where Anglophones and Francophones thrive in unison. The pressure was on Andrei to understand and speak both English and French; but, with English being the official first language of Canada, and therefore the one spoken most often by its residents, including the coaching staff of the Canadiens, he worked diligently on his linguistic skills in English.
Subsequent to the NHL lockout in 2004-05–when Markov played in Russia for Moscow Dynamo–Andrei continued to work on his communication skills, showing a vast improvement over the past season in his abilities with the English language. However, Andrei’s true value lies not in what he says to the media, but rather in what he conveys to his teammates on the ice, and behind the closed doors of the Habs’ dressing room. On the ice, Markov has been a model of consistency and contribution to the Canadiens’ defence core. Since the 2005-2006 season, his point totals have steadily increased, from 46 points in 2005-06, to 64 points in 08-09. Last year’s campaign, mind you, limited him to a meagre 45 games played, yet he still managed to accumulate 34 points. In fact, the Montreal Canadiens organization had so much faith in Andrei that they signedhim to a four year, $23 million dollar contract in May 2007. While over the past few years many offensive defencemen–and powerplay specialists–have come and gone in Montreal (first Sheldon Souray; then Mark Streit), Andrei Markov has been the mainstay on the Habs blueline. Why? Simply because Andrei is more valuable to the Canadiens because he makes the team that much better. For instance, Souray and Streit received most of the praise for the Habs successful powerplay in recent years, but it was actually Andrei Markov who served as the catalyst for most of their goals, setting up either defence partner with perfect passes from the point to tee up and launch at opposing goalies. However, being his typical quiet self, Andrei Markov desired no such fanfare. Meanwhile, he also played a key role as a shutdown defenceman (against Alexander Ovechkin for example), and served as one of Montreal’s best penalty killers during that time.
Off the ice, especially in the Habs’ dressing room, Andrei Markov is one of the greatest leaders in hockey. While he does not get much attention for his leadership qualities because he is not overly talkative, he does indeed serve as a pivotal leader in the Montreal Canadiens’ organization. When Carey Price felt a sense of entitlement on the team, and brought a lackadaisical approach to practice, game preparation, and focus during games, it was Andrei Markov who called out Price and challenged Carey to reconsider his approach and his efforts in the NHL. Ultimately, Price acknowledged “Markie’s” key role in forcing him out of the complacency of his ego, and thanked the Russian rearguard for making him a better player, and a better person. On another front, rumours were rampant last season that the almost-sacred captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens was offered to Markov (which he supposedly refused because of the intense demands placed on that role in Montreal, with the media scrutiny and language barrier again whispered to be factors). Nevertheless, that story was quickly dismissed by the Habs organization as nonsense. However, this season when the Canadiens officially announced Brian Gionta as captain, Andrei Markov was quickly assigned the assistant captaincy, and some still argue that he should have garnered the former letter, “C,” and not the latter letter, “A.”
It has been obvious throughout the 2010-11 season that Montreal Canadiens are missing the skill and leadership that Andrei Markov provides for the team. For example, the Habs’ powerplay has been atrocious, scoring only one goal throughout their first five games. Certainly, that number would be much better if Markov was in the lineup for those games. Not only is his passing ability, both setting up fellow point men and down-low players, unparalleled, he also possesses a hard and accurate shot, and likes to sneak in from the point to provide an extra weapon for the Habs to utilize while on the man-advantage. Some fans were too quick to jump on the P.K. Subban bandwagon, suggesting that he could fill Markov’s skates (so to speak) on the Habs powerplay. While Subban is an amazing talent, he does not yet have the overall patience and vision that Markov has with the puck. Mind you, when Markov does return, and it will be soon, he and Subban
will make a fearsome duo on the Canadiens’ blueline, especially on the PP.
It is interesting to note that, on July 16, 2010, Andrei Markov officially became a Canadian citizen. Ultimately, he has gained a certain command over the language of his new country. Furthermore, 2010-11 is the last year of the contract he signed in 2007. In a salary cap era when teams struggle to keep their quality players, the Montreal Canadiens cannot let Markov escape their grasp and play elsewhere in the league; he is simply worth too much to the organization. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “These days people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” For Habs fans, the cost of keeping Markov will never be too high because his value to the team is simply far too great.