Why Andrei Markov Holds All the Cards in Contract Talks with Montreal Canadiens

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Jan 18, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov (79) skates with the puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Canadiens 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

One wonders a little how the representatives of Montreal Canadiens defenceman—and pending unrestricted free agent—Andrei Markov responded to the Habs’ most recent contract offer. Laughter would not have been out of place.

Tony Marinaro, a TSN 690 radio host, tweeted the current state of negotiations earlier this week:

It’s not that the dollar value that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has put on Markov’s services is ridiculously low. It’s just that given this summer’s market for defencemen, Markov has no incentive to meekly assent to Montreal’s preference for year-to-year deals.

A quick glance at the market bears out the fact that Markov’s camp holds an enviable negotiating position not just with the Canadiens, but also with the rest of the NHL. Barring a deal, the veteran defenceman is slated to join a free agent crop this summer conspicuous for its lack of top-end defencemen.

According to the league’s official website, the 60th-ranked defenceman in terms of time on ice in the NHL today averages 21:27 per game, meaning that to be considered a top-two defenceman (all else being equal) a player should be playing roughly 21:30 or more per game.

Using CapGeek.com’s free agent finder, we can determine that exactly five pending free agent defencemen meet that threshold:

Pending free agent defencemen
Andrew MacDonald27604202425.6
Andrei Markov35595263125.1
Dan Girardi29594131722.7
Marek Zidlicky37588212921.6
Dan Boyle37528142221.4

It isn’t an overly impressive crop. Markov, at age 35, is squarely in the middle of this group in terms of age and can reasonably be expected to have a couple more good years in him than 37-year-olds Marek Zidlicky and Dan Boyle.

That leaves two other options. Both will be highly sought after, but at least in the case of Andrew MacDonald there’s a flashing red warning sign, made clear by a quick trip to stats.hockeyanalysis.com:

Andrew MacDonald with and without Travis Hamonic
SituationNYI Shot AttemptsOpp. Shot AttemptsDifference
MacDonald w/ Hamonic45.554.5-9.0
MacDonald w/o Hamonic41.158.9-17.8
Hamonic w/o MacDonald54.345.7+8.6

When MacDonald plays with fellow Islanders defenceman Travis Hamonic, the duo get buried in terms of on-ice shot attempts. When MacDonald plays apart from Hamonic, New York gets out-shot to an even greater degree.

In contrast, when Hamonic plays apart from MacDonald, the Islanders out-shoot the opposition by an extremely healthy rate. That's a terrifying set of numbers for the fans of whichever team signs MacDonald. 

In short, while MacDonald has been getting the minutes of a true No. 1 defenceman, the odds are good that he’s an impostor in that role.

Unless teams want to take a chance on a defenceman getting lesser minutes—a player like Brooks Orpik or Tom Gilbert—there are really only two options available in free agency this summer: Markov and Dan Girardi.

Jan 6, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky (17) fights for the puck with New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi (5) during the first period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Adding intrigue to the situation are ongoing talks with both players by their current teams. In Girardi’s case, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported earlier this week that negotiations are ongoing with the New York Rangers, with “a little bit of a difference in term, maybe a little less than $500,000 a year difference in money” still separating the two parties but both sides working to close the gap.

If Girardi re-signs, that leaves Markov as the only bona fide top pair defenceman on the market this summer. Further, even if Girardi does make it to free agency, there are way more than just two teams hoping to add a quality defenceman to their roster.

A year ago, in a (slightly) deeper market, the Philadelphia Flyers were willing to sign Mark Streit to a four-year, $5.25 million per season deal. That was a contract for a lesser player in a summer where a falling salary cap had made conditions difficult for many free agents. Markov, a superior player, will be asking for money in a rising salary cap environment.

There’s likely no need for Markov to choose between money and term. If he can’t get both from the Canadiens, he can be virtually certain that he’ll get them from someone else this summer.