In the end, it was either the Montreal Canadiens or Russia for defenseman Andrei Markov.
After the Canadiens wouldn’t meet his contract demands, the free agent announced he would not be back with the franchise with whom he’s played his entire NHL career, and that he was headed to the KHL.
“I wanted to finish my career with the Montreal Canadiens. But it’s a business,” he said.
Markov played 990 games in Montreal, scoring 119 goals with 453 assists, establishing himself as an elite blueliner from 2000-2017. Only Larry Robinson had more points as a defenseman with the Canadiens than did Markov.
“Arguably one of the best defensemen in franchise history, Andrei was a model of dedication to the great game of hockey. A respected figure around the league and among his teammates, Andrei demonstrated leadership both on and off the ice,” said owner Geoff Molson in a statement. “Andrei’s commitment to our franchise was second to none, proven by his overcoming three serious and potentially career-ending injuries.”
That elite status extended into his late 30s, as Markov had 36 points in 62 games last season in Montreal. He was an impact player on the power play and a possession-driving machine at 5-on-5.
According to Markov, the Canadiens could have had all of that for another season, but opted against signing him.
“To make a deal, it always takes two people. I don’t want to go through the numbers. It is what it is right now,” Markov said.
But he did reveal one number: That his contract demand dropped from two years to a one-year deal during the negotiation with GM Marc Bergevin – Markov represented himself in the talks – but that the Canadiens didn’t want to meet those terms either, despite over $8 million in cap space.
“I was ready to stay in Montreal. I was ready to sign one-year deal. But it didn’t work,” he said.
Markov’s initial ask was reported to be two years and $12 million.
“The decision was made. It doesn’t matter what decision we had,” he said. “They say as one door closes, another one opens, you know?”
So Markov will return to Russia with his family. He said he knows what KHL team he’ll join, but couldn’t reveal its identity quite yet. Markov played with Moscow Dynamo and Chekhov Vityaz during NHL lockouts in 2005 and 2012. It appears his KHL team this time around will be Ak Bars. Markov hopes he’ll have a chance to play for the Russian national team at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
But it was an easy call to play in the KHL after the Canadiens’ opportunity disappeared.
“I couldn’t see myself with another NHL team,” he said, although Markov added he had a new options.
“I’m sad. I’m sad to leave. But that’s life,” said Markov.
And yet it didn’t have to be this way. The Canadiens are going to get absolutely filleted by Markov supporters for not opting to bring him back on a one-year deal.
The two-year term? Sure, it’s understandable that Bergevin would balk at a $6 million cap hit for player that turns 40 in Dec. 2018. Even with Tomas Plekanec’s $6 million coming off the cap in 2018-19, the Carey Price cap hit increases by $4 million that season and Montreal no doubt wanted some cap space to make a run at someone like John Tavares if he’s available.
But Markov can still play at an elite level next season. He showed that last season. Even if he loses a step at 5-on-5, there’s no replacing his impact on the power play, which alone would warrant a one-year investment:
Andrei Markov got a point on 80% of the PP goals scored when he was on the ice last season, highest percentage for a d-man in the NHL.
— Аrpon Basu (@ArponBasu) July 27, 2017
Marc Bergevin has had one of the strangest off-seasons in recent memory for a general manager. The Jonathan Drouin trade could boom or bust. The Carey Price signing was a controversial necessity. He got Galchenyuk signed. He blew the negotiation with Alex Radulov, who said he signed with the Dallas Stars for what the Canadiens were offering him. And now the Habs are going into next season with David Schlemko and Mark Streit attempting to give them a smaller percentage of the offensive Markov did.
For a team primed to contend, this seems like a counterintuitive decision. The only defense one can offer for Bergevin would be if Markov’s salary ask was uncomfortably higher on a one-year term — let’s say $7.5 million, to spit out a number.
That said, this moment is less about what the Canadiens will be without Andrei Markov and more about recalling what they were when he was patrolling their blue line during his remarkable NHL career. In the storied history of a storied franchise, Markov is an all-timer.
“To step on the ice at Bell Centre was a special feeling. And it’s a feeling I’m not going to forget,” he said, saying that a return to North America isn’t out of the question. “You never know. I’m not closing my door to Montreal and I’m not closing my door on the NHL.”
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