Contrary to popular belief, the Montreal Canadiens’ defense corps will not be graced by just one additional defenseman in 2012-2013 (Francis Bouillon), but two.
Granted, Andrei Markov did play last year, but, for all intents and purposes, his 13 games played on the Habs' last 14 overall were not his best work and served as a trial run for this season.
With all the remaining pieces essentially staying the same (assuming P.K. Subban is resigned in due time), the Habs’ performance on the blue line will largely be dictated by Markov’s ability to stay healthy, and his ability to return to his all-star form. He is the lynchpin here. If Markov doesn’t return to form, Montreal will lack a No. 1 defenseman.
By now, most every Habs fan is familiar with the circumstances surrounding Markov's career over the past few seasons. So, to sum up quickly: an all-too-familiar, age-old tale of bloodshed, tears dropped, general tragedy, history repeating itself, and one inept general manager stupidly handing a kneeless defenseman a three-year contract for the same per-year amount as his last deal.
Perhaps we will never know what Pierre Gauthier was thinking when he signed Markov to his current three-year, $17.25-million deal last offseason.
Maybe he wasn’t so naïve as to think that Markov would become the defensive anchor he once was after having had operations on both his knees. Maybe it was a gesture of kindness and good faith to allow Markov the chance to end his career in a Habs uniform.
More likely, however, considering Gauthier’s incomprehensible lack of people skills, he lost a bet and opted not to go with the alternative of streaking down Rene-Levesque Boulevard.
What’s done is done.
Markov is primed to return to action; at least one would hopefully expect so.
With Alexei Emelin resigned as well and being known to play more of a physical, stay-at-home style, it’s easy to see the two complementing each other perfectly (especially with both players being Russian) and making up Montreal’s second or third pairing, which is a conservative projection. The Markov of old would undeniably be on the first pairing, no matter his partner.
Once Subban gets his name on a dotted line, he and Josh Gorges will likely comprise that top pairing.
As such, Tomas Kaberle, Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber, and Bouillon will be competing for two spots.
The smart money is on Kaberle being safe, because, he is a legitimate National Hockey League defenseman and would be an asset to Montreal’s power play. That leaves three remaining d-men and just one spot left, along with the potential for a revolving door between the ice and the press box.
On the surface, it’s a good position for the Habs to be in, having more NHL-caliber defenseman than they need, but the truth of the matter is those NHL-caliber d-men aren’t exactly top of the barrel.
For a team that finished in a respectable three-team tie for 14th in the league in terms of goals against last year, the best thing Montreal has going for it is that five of their eight d-men are 28 or younger.
Of course, what’s less encouraging is those two other teams in that three-team tie were the dying Calgary Flames and Ryan Suter-less Minnesota Wild. In any case, there is a healthy core here that has a chance to grow old together and become one with which to be reckoned for many years to come—but not right now.
Each member of that core is undeniably a year older and better than in 2011-2012.
Thankfully the growing pains are poised to show less than the ever-increasing-in-size holes in the games of Kaberle and Markov.
Even under the grandiose assumption that Markov will play like he once could (he won’t), both he and Kaberle are clearly on the downsides of their respective careers. Gorges, despite his undeniable value to the team, is more of a solid top-four guy on a good team than a top-two one.
Subban still has a lot to prove as he’s just 23. That isn’t a knock on him and the controversy that has surrounded him the past few years. It’s just common sense to assume a player in his early 20s in a city like Montreal doesn’t possess the necessary leadership skills to step into the role of a top defenseman.
That’s why Montreal needs a healthy and capable Markov. That’s also likely why Montreal’s defense, while likely to improve, will still fall short this year.