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- January hasn't been a kind month for Lars Eller. He has just 12 points in 44 games, his lowest PPG average of any month.
This offseason is shaping up to be a busy one for the Habs with over 25 players needing new contracts. This is the first article of a series that will look at some of the more prominent free agents and assess whether they should be brought back and if they're likely to return for the 2011-12 season.
In terms of longevity, Andrei Markov is the face of the Montreal Canadiens having been drafted by the club back in 1998. You probably couldn't be faulted for not recognizing him though as he has played in just seven games since Game 2 of last year's 2nd round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins due to multiple knee injuries. Despite this, he is likely to command a sizable contract in free agency come July.
Inside the Numbers
Markov has been a productive performer in recent years, having eclipsed at least the 30-point plateau in the five seasons prior to 2010-11 with four of those years yielding outputs of over 45 points. The playoffs have been a bit of a different story though as his point-per-game average is nearly a quarter of a point-per-game lower than during the regular season while he has just one goal in his last 34 postseason games. Salary wise, he made $5.75 million last season and is coming off a contract that at the time made him the highest paid skater in franchise history.
Argument to keep him
There's no denying the defence took a huge hit when Markov went down against the Hurricanes this season. As much as the likes of James Wisniewski and others helped to hold the fort, they couldn't bring the complete game to the table like Markov does. He has proven that he can log major minutes and is particularly adept of setting up a powerplay; wouldn't it be nice to see Markov setting up P.K. Subban with the man advantage? Also, players rarely stay with an organization their entire career, the Habs have an opportunity to have a Hab for life with Markov which is something they've lacked for a long time. Markov has said he wants to stay with Montreal and would also help to ease newly signed Alexei Yemelin's integration into the NHL.
Argument to let him go
He is coming off a major knee injury for the second straight season and will turn 33 early into next year. Accordingly, there will be some concerns about his ability to keep up with the play, an issue accentuated by the uncertainty surrounding Josh Gorges (knee surgery), Jaroslav Spacek, and possibly Roman Hamrlik and/or Hal Gill, if one or both of them return. How many question marks can a defence have? His playoff numbers aren't particularly impressive and the Canadiens already have concerns around some of their top players regressing once the postseason hits. Sentimentality is nice and all but it doesn't matter about his history with the team.
Of all of Montreal's many free agents, his is easily the most interesting scenario. Since he missed so much time due to injury, he qualifies for a contract that would include performance bonuses, as long as it's a 1 year deal. (Of course with no bonus cushion for this coming season, that loses a bit of its allure aside from any games played bonuses.) However, I suspect that if there was mutual interest in a deal like this, I wouldn't have a need to write this piece as he already would have signed by now.
Working against the Habs is that this free agency class is particularly weak. Teams that are looking for help on the blueline don't have a lot of proven players to turn to. As a result, I'm inclined to believe that he can get at least $5 million guaranteed on a multi-year deal from one of the thirty teams out there. So then the question becomes do you go on a short multi-year deal (think two or three years) or go long-term (five, six years frontloaded) to lower the cap hit as we've seen several other teams do? In that instance, the cap hit would likely be somewhere within the $4 million variety which would be more ideal for the Canadiens and allow a little more flexibility moving forward. Of course there is a lot more risk to this given his recent injury history.
In the end, I suspect the Habs will wind up keeping their longest tenured player. The deal will be for either two or three years at a cost of around $5 million. I truly believe Markov when he says he wants to stay with Montreal (I don't buy it when some of the other free agents say that) and I think he will cut the team a bit of a break money wise. That's why I don't foresee the cap hit equaling the $5.75 M cap hit he had this past season. There is always risk associated with bringing someone back with knee concerns but on the other hand, it's especially risky letting go of a player that most felt was Montreal's best player heading into 2010-11. That's a risk I don't see Pierre Gauthier and company being willing to take.