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Rare is the player on Montreal who falls below the radar. In a hockey mad city where the level of scrutiny is never less than intense, rarer still is the all-star who is able to ply his trade without undergoing a vigorous examination of his play night in and night out. Compared to cities like Columbus and Nashville where players perform in relative anonymity, Montreal takes players on the team’s fringe and suddenly transforms them into subjects of obsession by both a critical media and the most demanding of fan bases.

Andrei Markov is then the truest of rarities.

One of the least written about players on the team, Markov is one of the least talkative of the Canadiens. Preferring to let his play on the ice do the talking, Markov keeps his emotions hidden under his sleeve.

On the ice, he is the Canadiens most prominent player. He is unquestionably the team’s top defenseman, a player who plays in excess of twenty-five minutes a game. For the last two years he has been the quarterback of the NHL’s top power play. However, it has been his partners on the blue line, firstly Sheldon Souray and last year Mark Streit, who were able to parlay their power play success into long term, high paying free agency contracts. And while both have garnered the majority of the headlines for their booming shots from the point, it is Markov acting as a conductor who pulls the strings during the man advantage, while always remaining in the background.

In his own end, Markov is no less valuable to the Canadiens. Paired with Mike Komisarek, Markov quite often finds himself paired against the league’s dominant forwards, players named Ovechkin, Crosby, Briere, and Lecavalier. Given the task of shutting down the oppositions best in tandem with his offensive expectations makes Markov the most crucial player to the Canadiens success.

Yet for Andrei Markov, fame has proven elusive.

The Canadiens lone all-star last season, Markov garnered the most votes of any defenseman in the Eastern Conference, and was second only to Sidney Crosby in voting for all players in the conference. However, in a discussion of the league’s top defenseman his name rarely comes up. And while many defensemen live in the shadow of the continued greatness of Nicklas Lidstrom, Markov finds himself buried deeper in the shadows than most.

A man given to quiet introspection as opposed to blatant self promotion, Markov finds himself as an oddity in today’s sporting world where even the least talented of players find a way to make the news with their mouth and not always their play. Markov will never make a headline with his words, instead preferring to have his play speak for him.

By not giving good copy to the press on a consistent basis, Markov has watched others, many less talented; receive far more publicity because of their willingness to engage the media on a regular basis. Unusually soft spoken for today’s athlete, Markov has achieved a modicum of fame, solely based on his on-ice play. Ironically, the most press that Markov found last year was when his friend, and noted competitor Alexander Ovechkin pronounced Markov as the toughest defensemen he plays against on a regular basis.

Drafted with the 162nd pick by the Canadiens in the 1998 draft, Markov has found himself on a steady climb up through the ranks. A two-time winner of the Russian equivalent of the Norris trophy, Markov also was named the most valuable player in the 2000 Russian League.

Joining the Canadiens in 2000, Markov has steadily climbed to the top of the Habs defensive rankings, culminating in last year’s career best 58 point performance, while playing in all 82 games. Critics have pointed out that in recent years that Markov’s plus/minus has declined. However, a large part of this can be attributed to Markov’s increased responsibility and to the fact that he faces off with the opposing team’s best every night, every game.

“It’s not about my numbers or my plus/minus,” responded Markov last spring to the Montreal Gazette, “it’s about the team and playing better than the season before. I want to grow and improve and learn from every shift and every game.”

And while some may have whispered about parts of Markov’s play last year, the proof was in the Canadiens first place finish in the Eastern Conference.

In the playoffs however, the Canadiens appeared to run out of magic in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers. And while most of the blame went on the young shoulders of Canadiens rookie goaltender Carey Price, Markov once again, seemed to fly under the radar.

Throughout the playoffs rumours surfaced of Markov playing through pain and his performance suffered. The two main reasons for the Habs elimination from the playoffs were the struggles on the power play, as well as the breakdowns in the defensive end. Ironically, during the season these were two of the Canadiens strongest points. Needless to say, the deterioration in Markov’s play had the most adverse effect on the Canadiens post season efforts.

Yet Markov escaped relatively blameless in the Habs meltdown this past spring. In retrospect, one can only hope that last year serves as the most valuable of lessons for Markov going forward. Playing a full season, for the first time, in addition to playing the most minutes of any player on the team, seemed to take it’s toll on Markov, a player who doesn’t take nights off, performing at a consistent level each night.

And while one must credit Markov for playing through the pain, one wonders if the long term effects wouldn’t have been lessened had he sat out a game or two.

In Andrei Markov, the Canadiens have one of the top defenseman in the league, something they’ve been lacking for the last decade-and-a-half. One of the leaders on the team, Markov is given to leading by example. While not the flashiest defensemen in the league, Markov is among the games most efficient, making the difficult look routine.

Continuing in the proud tradition of legendary Habs like Serge Savard, Jacques Laperriere, and Jean-Guy Talbot, Markov is one of those unique defenseman who does everything well, and excels in any situation he’s placed in whether offensively or defensively. At the age of twenty-nine, Markov is just entering the prime of his career, a prime that luckily for Canadiens fans, coincides with their team’s renaissance.