On the surface, it doesn’t seem the least bit fair. Three years ago, the Montreal Canadiens took an enormous leap of faith on an aging defenseman with a very bad knee when they gave Andrei Markov a three-year deal worth $17.25 million. When he signed the deal, Markov had played just seven games the season before and in the first year of the contract, he played only 13.
So you’d think the guy might be willing to cut the Canadiens a break on this one instead of asking for three years at $18 million on a contract that will take him well beyond his 38th birthday. Logic would dictate that the Canadiens have already taken their risk on Markov, have handsomely rewarded him for missing a ton of hockey games and they should not be expected to take that kind of risk again. You’d think Markov might realize this, too, and tone down his contract demands.
Good luck on that. This is the NHL, an environment where the league holds the upper hand on its players – but doesn’t use it enough, in my humble opinion – when it comes to collective bargaining, but where teams often get slaughtered when it comes to mano a mano negotiations. Markov is asking for both big money and big term because he knows he can. He also knows if the Canadiens turn him down, teams will be lined up on July 1 to give him them, or perhaps even more favorable ones.
It’s all about leverage and Markov knows he has an enormous amount of it. He also has a new agent, former NHLer Sergei Berezin, who recently received his certification from the NHL Players’ Association. Markov is Berezin’s first client and the last thing Berezin wants to do on his first big negotiation is come up short. That kind of performance tends to hurt business.
Markov and Berezin know that this year’s crop of unrestricted free agents is bereft of top-end talent. There’s Dan Boyle, who is 18 months older than Markov and has already been told by the San Jose Sharks they’re not interested. There’s Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Pittsburgh and Anton Stralman. And that’s about it. All those teams picking through a group so bereft of talent tends to drive the price up considerable for those few who are being pursued.
So, really, Markov kind of has the Canadiens over a barrel on this one. Not only does he know he can get what he wants elsewhere, he also knows the Canadiens can’t replace him. Say what you would like about Markov and his lack of speed on the blueline, but there is absolutely no way the Canadiens are as good a team without him in the lineup than with him. If the Canadiens were to let him walk, they’d be saying goodbye to a 40-point defenseman who logs 25 minutes a game.
He remains an elite puck mover and power-play quarterback and while the playoffs showed that he can wear down and his ability to get the puck out of his own end isn’t the iron-clad guarantee it once was, he is still a pretty sure bet to remove the puck from danger. He has a history of making players around him better and his offensive instincts are still off the charts. What he has lost in physical skills he makes up for with a quick mind that thinks the game on a higher level than most other players.
With Markov it’s not the money so much as the term that makes it a dicey proposition. At this stage of his career, Markov is the kind of player whom GMs would probably prefer to keep on a series of one-year deals, but that is not going to happen. Perhaps Markov and Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin might be able to settle on a two-year deal, but again, that would force Markov to make a concession it doesn’t look as though he’s willing to make, even for the Canadiens.
So the main question facing the Canadiens is whether or not Markov is worth the risk at that money and that kind of term. He was three years ago and things turned out just fine.