HabsWorld.net -- 

The Montreal Canadiens’ defence core took a devastating blow when the organization announced Tuesday, November 16th that Andrei Markov, their best defenceman, will be out of the lineup for a, “long-term absence.” Habs fans had been holding their breath since last Saturday’s 7-2 win against the Carolina Hurricanes, when Markov fell awkwardly into the Bell Centre boards during the final minutes of the game. Markov grimaced as he writhed in pain and punched those boards. At that time, his face reflected what Habs fans feared most–he had re-injured his surgically repaired right knee, the one that he had been rehabbing since last May. Only a measly seven games into his season, the Habs star defenceman is back on the sidelines and is out “indefinitely.” Exactly how long “indefinitely” or “long-term” specifies is currently unknown due to the swelling which exists around his knee. Next on Markov’s agenda is a visit early next week to orthopedic surgeon Anthony Miniaci in Cleveland, Ohio, the surgeon who repaired the ACL in the same knee last spring. From there, Andrei must accept the diagnosis and prognosis and begin another labour-intensive and lengthy rehab; for the Habs themselves, they too must bear down and prepare for life without him (again). However, how exactly will the team’s defence group cope without the services of their stellar rear-guard?

It should be noted that Andrei Markov’s play was improving steadily as his short season progressed. He played a total of seven games, registering 3 points–1 goal and 2 assists. He was taking close to 30 shifts per game and averaged almost 24 minutes of playing time in them. Also, he was a +2 to go along with his other major stats. Those numbers are quite decent considering the man had not played a game for almost six months. In fact, he and the team appeared to be hitting their stride after three consecutive wins over Vancouver, Boston and Carolina. Furthermore, what was the league’s worst powerplay, with the Habs hovering around 30th in the NHL, surged to 20th overall with Markov in the lineup. Is that stat merely a coincidence? Simply put, no, it is not… However, other aspects of the team also improved simultaneous to Markov’s resurgence (such as Gionta re-finding his scoring touch alongside Plekanec, Subban maturing at all levels of his game, Spacek improving his play both offensively and defensively, etc). Nevertheless, while the loss of Andrei Markov will be a huge hurdle for the team to overcome, not only on the ice, but also in the
Habs’ dressing room, the team still has a capable d-core that must galvanize itself during this period of loss and prove that they have the ability to supplement, but not necessarily replace, Andrei, and keep the team’s defensive system and continue winning games.

How, then, will the Montreal Canadiens supplement Markov’s loss? First, we have to look to the veterans on the team, especially Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek. The Czech duo must step up their game in Andrei’s absence. Both will likely see more ice time, predominantly on the PP, as evidenced Tuesday night in Montreal’s 3-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers, where the Habs scored twice on the man advantage. While Hamrlik came away from that game without a point, he logged over 24 minutes of playing time, had 2 shots on goal, and had an even plus/minus. That effort was far better than his minus 3 showing in Montreal’s 3-0 loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday night, even though he had several minutes of PP time in that game as well. The 36 year old from Zlin, Czech Republic, has 1 goal and 7 assists in 16 games this season (his lone goal coming on the PP) and is a plus 3. When Markov was injured during the first portion of the season, Hamrlik was used as a supplement to that loss, but was still recovering from his own knee injury which forced him to miss training camp. Because of his own injury, and the timing and conditioning issues which surrounded it, it took Hamrlik awhile to play up to his customary level. While Hamrlik does not command the offensive gifts possessed by Andrei Markov, he is usually a steady defensive presence who can chip in with the occasional pp goal, but he will need to be much stronger defensively than he was against the Predators. In Spacek’s case, he had almost 3 minutes of powerplay time against Nashville, but was on the ice for 2 of their 3 goals, and left the game with just over two minutes remaining after colliding head-on into the boards. At this early stage, there was no word on the extent of his injury.

Second, the young(er) Habs defencemen, namely P.K. Subban and Alexandre Picard, will also be forced to take their respective games to new heights. Picard, who was a healthy scratch for seven straight games when Markov was infused into the lineup, returned to the ice for Tuesday’s game against Philadelphia as Markov’s “replacement” and played over 14 minutes, while registering a plus 1. Similarly, against the Preds, he logged over 17 minutes of playing time, including close to 3 minutes of PP time, finishing with an even plus/minus. Overall, Picard has 1 goal in 11 games this season and is a respectable plus 8. The 6’3 215lb defenceman from Gatineau, Quebec has been a consistent player for the team, having only one minus game all season long–against the Leafs in October. He will, however, have to muster a little more from his offensive game, which may not be much of a problem playing alongside P.K. Subban.

We are all aware of P.K’s dynamic offensive and defensive abilities (he has 1 goal, a pp marker, and 7 assists in 19 games this year); therefore, how will the young phenom raise his game to another level? Quite simply, he has to capitalize on more of his offensive chances. More than once we have watched his powerful slapshot hit the post, get blocked, or just miss the net this season. We have also witnessed him take too many penalties, when the team is far better served with his services on the ice, rather than in the penalty box. Subban’s play at both ends of the rink has improved drastically over the season, and with a few more lucky bounces, he can, and will, pick up the majority of the offensive slack resulting from Markov’s absence. Not only that, but P.K. is a vocal communicator on the ice and a natural-born leader in the dressing room. While Mike Richards labeled Subban as “cocky,” P.K. should be more accurately categorized as “confident,” and at only 21 years of age, his confidence and leadership qualities will enable him to emerge as one of the “new” leaders in the Habs organization during life without Markov.

If the current defence core cannot do an adequate job with what they have in Montreal, where does the team turn from there? The most logical option was to recall one of the defencemen from the Hamilton Bulldogs, and Yannick Weber was the organization’s first choice as they recalled him on Thursday. He and Mathieu Carle are the top two defence options in the farm system, and both are right handed shots (a valuable asset to a productive powerplay). Weber is an offensive defenseman with a wicked slapshot, and would be a fine addition to the
Habs’ PP. Presently, he is tearing up the AHL, leading all defencemen with 8 goals, including 4 powerplay goals and 2 game winners, to go along with his 12 points in 14 games this season. Weber’s cannon from the point is a weapon that any team would covet. However, he has demonstrated that he can be a defensive liability while playing in several short stints with Montreal, and still does so in Hamilton, where he is a minus 5. Mathieu Carle, on the other hand, is a much more steady defensive force, being a plus 6 this season. He also has 4 goals and 1 assist in 15 games; like Weber, Carle has 2 game winning goals this season, but has yet to capitalize on the powerplay. The latter defenceman may have been the better option for the Canadiens here, because the former’s defensive lapses can sometimes be detrimental to the team. During Carle’s brief playing time in Montreal, he did not look out of place and made simple, smart decisions with the puck.

If all else fails, will the Habs make a trade to acquire a veteran defenceman or sign a free agent to supplement the loss of Andrei Markov? Much speculation has existed in the NHL rumour mill that the Canadiens are interested in acquiring Kevin Bieksa from the Vancouver Canucks. While Bieksa does have some offensive potential (he scored 11 goals and 43 points in 72 games in 2008-09), he has had injury problems over the past few seasons, and has only 3 assists in his first 17 games this season. Mind you, Bieksa
also brings an element of grit and toughness to his game that would be a welcomed addition to Montreal’s lineup. As for free agents, the possibility exists that former Habs Marc-Andre Bergeron and/or Mathieu Schneider are on the radar. Bergeron, however, is recovering from ACL surgery and has not yet received medical clearance to play. Once he has received clearance, he still must sign with the team and undergo a conditioning period before he is ready to
contribute. Any of these three choices would be a huge move for Montreal, and perhaps not in the right direction.

What the Canadiens have in their present lineup may not be adequate–Price stole the game against Philly, stopping 41 shots, and Thursday they allowed 30 shots against, while being shutout by the Preds–to continue their successful season without Andrei Markov. Yannick Weber was recalled on Thursday, but was a healthy scratch for the game vs the Predators. Presumably, he will get some playing time if Picard slips, or if any of the other top defencemen get injured. Now, with Ryan O’Byrne recently traded to Colorado for prospect Michael Bournival, the timing of Markov’s injury proves all the more interesting for the defence core of the Montreal Canadiens. The top six d-men remaining in Montreal must stay healthy for the team to keep winning. When they did not have Markov for the first 10 games this season, the team went a sparkling 7-2-1, and life without Markov forced the team to congeal as a unit and learn to play without him. The only question is, can they do it again, when life goes on for an extended period without their best defenceman?