Saving Andrei Markov

I watched Saving Private Ryan recently. I had seen it before and always thought it was a good movie. It was never one of my favorites; it never made any of my top 5 lists. The movie would come up occasionally if someone was discussing the best war movies ever made. Whenever it was mentioned, I’d nod my head and say “oh yeah, that is a pretty awesome movie.”

So…while watching it recently, I spent the whole time thinking that Saving Private Ryan is actually a great movie. I don’t know if age has made me appreciate it more. Perhaps becoming a father has made it easier for me to be more emotionally invested in the characters. Either way, I walked away truly appreciating a movie, that I had always thought was good to begin with….

The Montreal Canadiens recently signed Andrei Markov to a 3 year, 17.25 million dollar contract. It’s his fifth contract with the Canadiens. At the end of this contract he’ll be 38 years old and would have completed his 16th year as a Montreal Canadien. In that span he’s arguably been the Habs’ best player for a majority of the years that he’s played here. Without a doubt he’s been the best defenseman on the team before the emergence of P.K. Subban a few years ago. Furthermore he’s been one of the top defenseman in the entire league. He’s finished in the top 20 in defenseman scoring 6 times in his career (including the last two years!) and if not for a series of unfortunate injuries – that number may be higher. Those injuries robbed him of the better part of 3 seasons. Prior to the first injury, he was ascending into the upper echelon of defenseman in the league having finished 2nd in scoring in 2008-2009. As a result of those injuries, Markov was labeled as an injury prone player, which is a factor that is constantly brought up by fans who dislike his contract.

When you label someone “injury prone” you’re implying that he is more likely to suffer an injury in a given situation when compared to another NHL player. Let’s review the injuries in some more depth before we define Markov.

1) His first major injury was a lacerated ankle after colliding into Carey Price’s skate during a goal mouth melee. Now I’m no doctor, but I feel confident that most human beings would suffer a serious laceration when coming into contact with a sharp skate blade. If anything Markov is more unlucky than injury prone in this case.

2) Markov suffers a right knee injury after taking an hit from Matt Cooke along the boards: Originally I was going to accept this injury as one that would fall into the “injury prone” bucket, but then I remembered it was caused by Matt Cooke. We’re talking about a guy who causes career threatening injuries simply by farting on the ice. The hit wasn’t dirty but the fact remains it was delivered by Cooke, who’s reputation is so bad that he’s scheduled to be new villain in the next season of 24.

3) Markov suffers another injury to his right knee due to an awkward knee on knee collision with Eric Stall. At first glance it looks like a simple hockey play that resulted in an injury for Markov. However after multiple viewings; Stall jumps up as they are skating towards the corner and his knee makes direct contact with Markov’s knee. Also, you need to consider Stall is a 6’4, 205 pound prairie boy and his knee is probably made of adamantium that has been exposed to gamma radiation. I don’t need to document the long list of serious injuries that come about from knee on knee collisions. Most players would suffer some sort of injury in that situation. Of course it didn’t help that it was the knee he had just repaired, but I still don’t believe this falls into the “injury prone” category.

I have to point out that prior to those injuries Markov had only missed 7 games in the previous 3 years. I also need to point out that since taking the extra time off to rest his last knee injury; Markov has only missed 1 game in the last 2 seasons while playing well over 20 minutes per game. So you can go ahead and label him “injury prone” if you’d like. I’ll go the other way and say he was unlucky, and if anything, he has benefited from the time off as compared to other players in his age group.

Speaking of which, age is another important fact when discussing Markov. When the news broke of his last contract, most fans reacted negatively to the fact that he he was going to be 38 by the time the contract expired. Some balked at paying that much money annually to a player over the age of 35. I admit I would have preferred a 2 year contract but when I started delving into Markov’s career, I began to realize how valuable he has been and continues to be for the Habs. Furthermore when you take a look at players around the league that are comparable in terms of age and production you get a clearer picture on Markov’s current contract.

Let’s establish that Markov has been a truly valuable player for this franchise. Here are the top 5 defensemen in Montreal Canadiens history ranked by points per game, and that have played at least 400 games.

1) Chris Chelios: 0.769
2) Guy Lapointe: 0.736
3) Larry Robinson: 0.735
4) Andrei Markov: 0.578
5) Doug Harvey: 0.502

Go back and read that list again. Markov is in some pretty elite company – not just in terms of production but also longevity within the franchise.

Below are some contracts that have been given out in the last few years to players who compare to Markov in terms of production and age:

Dan Boyle (Career P/GP: 0.588)
At the age 32 , he signed a 6 year contract with a cap hit of 6.6M a year till he turned 37. Currently the 37 year old is looking for a contract worth 5M+ for 2 years. He will get it.

Sergei Gonchar (Career P/GP: 0.636)
At the age of 36, he signed a 3 year contract with a cap hit of 5.5M a year till he turned 39. At age of 39, he signed a 2 year contract with a cap hit of 5M a year till he turns 41.

Mark Streit (Career P/GP: 0.579)
At the age of 35, he signed a 4 year contract with a cap hit of 5.25M a year till he turns 39

Lubomir Visnovsky (Career P/GP: 0.572)
At the age of 35, he signed a 2 year contract with a cap hit of 4.75M a year till he turned 37. He is looking for a new contract.

When you take a look at those contracts and longer term contracts (like the 8 year deal that Brian Campbell ((career P/GP: 0.512)) signed when he was 29 – that has 2 more years on it with a cap hit of 7.14M a year), you can come to a pretty easy conclusion that Markov’s 3 year deal with a cap hit of 5.75M is right about where it should be given his status on the team and the “Montreal tax…tax.”

Amazingly I haven’t even touched on the advanced stats yet, but the guys at Habs EOTP do a much better job than I ever could at breaking that down. Bottom line: he is a positive puck possession player who makes his teammates better (specifically Emelin – who is lost without Markov), he’s a leader in the locker room, and he’s a power play ace. While some fans bemoan the loss of his foot speed and turning ability – he makes up for it with better body positioning and his all world vision. Finally as a true blue Habs’ fan, how can you hate on a guy who, by the end of this contract, will have been a Hab for almost 17 years. So let’s take this opportunity to appreciate number 79; for all his great skill – his perseverance and not letting injuries derail his career – for being part of the future of this team and guiding the young players on this team – for spurning a higher salary through free agency because he wants to stay in this city and bring home a Cup.

Let’s not take him for granted. He’s a throw back to an age when players played their whole careers with one team. A relic from a time when you cheered for a player on your team from the time that you were a kid, through your teenage years, and finally as an adult. There is a huge pile of Habs’ gear from Markov’s era in a dark corner of my house; crumpled up t-shirts and jerseys bearing names like Theodore, Kovalev, Komisarek and Cammalleri (the only player from that era that to escape the “pile” is Captain Koivu, who is a Hab forever and ever in my eyes). When I thought about the playoff run this year, I rarely saw anyone sporting a Markov t-shirt or jersey. It surprised me that I never bought a Markov jersey or t-shirt in all these years, even though I always thought he was really good. Like a brilliant movie you forget about till it’s on or is brought up; he has a knack for flying under the radar, but every once in a while you get a reminder of his greatness.

Give me a follow on twitter (@wolverinehabs) for any and all random thoughts on hockey and sports in general from yours truly.

Go Habs Go.

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