The Montreal Canadiens were in a tough spot with Andrei Markov: sign him to an over-35 contract and hope he stays as healthy as he’s been the past two years, or let him walk and try to pick up the 25-plus minutes he logs per night elsewhere?
Today, the decision was made final as Markov re-upped with the Habs for another three-year deal for the same $5.75 million cap hit as his last contract. Even if you thought the Habs should have let Markov walk, it’s hard to say this is a bad contract – for now anyway.
In a perfect world, the Habs surely would have rather signed Markov to a two-year deal, which he would have finished at age 37. At that point, Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi should be prepared for full-time NHL duty and P.K. Subban will be at his peak. It would seem like a good transition period. But if three years is what Markov was going to play hardball over, then it wasn’t worth the fight or the risk for the organization. Markov still logs a ton of minutes and has at least another one or two good regular seasons left in him. It may turn out that he’s too old, too slow and too injured in the final year of this deal, but this contract never will be about Year 3. It’s all about those first two years.
No matter that he faded near the end of the season and had a dreadful playoff in an Olympic year, Markov is still a horse and a leader on this team. He averaged 25:14 of ice this season and was one of only 26 NHL defensemen to score 40-plus points. He’s not a stay-at-home defender like Mike Weaver or a free-wheeling, all-out offense guy like P.K. Subban – Markov is a reliable presence at both ends. More than three-quarters of his zone starts came in the neutral or defensive zones and his possession stats are some of the best on Montreal’s blueline. Here’s Montreal’s regular season usage chart from ExtraSkater (red = negative corsi, blue = positive corsi):
At some point, Markov isn’t going to be able to be used in this kind of minute-eating leadership role anymore and, odds are, that time will come at some point during this contract. But think about next season for a moment. Montreal is coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference final where they may have been able to knock off the Rangers if Carey Price remained healthy (not that Dustin Tokarski lost it for the Habs, but it’s a realistic alternate timeline). Now, if you’re the Habs, do you want to watch your 25-plus minute defenseman walk for nothing and hope Josh Gorges, Alex Emelin and the two early-20s defenders in your lineup can make up the difference? Or are you going to chase Matt Niskanen or Dan Boyle – who will both likely get overpaid for more than $5.75 million on the open market – to fill the role? A year after being so close, the last thing you want to risk is taking a step back.
The safest option for next season was to stick with Markov and that’s what the Habs did. They’ll bring back this year’s team and likely try to add on to their real weakness – the forward unit – to give them another, better shot at making it out of the Eastern Conference come playoff time. Without Markov, there would have been a whole lot more work to do to keep the team on this path, without any guarantee they’d be able to fill his void.
Markov’s injury history is another reason to be worried over this contract, but if he needs to go on LTIR, his cap hit would come off the books anyway. All teams deal with injuries and it’s always challenging to overcome losing a top-two defender for a prolonged period. But Markov has played two injury-free seasons in a row. Does that mean he’s in a groove, or that he’s due for another injury any time now?
Either way, who would fill Markov’s role on the Habs better than Markov and how would the team acquire such a player for less money?
Markov may be playing closer to, or less than, 20 minutes a night by the third year of this deal and that’s fine. If everything goes according to plan for the franchise, Markov won’t need to be in a head man role by that point. Hopefully in Year 3, there is some transition going on.
But as long as Markov gives them one or two more good and healthy years, this extension will have been perfectly worth it for Montreal. Three years at $5.75 million against the cap? Only 11 NHL defensemen averaged more than 25 minutes a night this season – and Markov will be the seventh-highest paid of those.
Sounds like a good deal to me.