MONTREAL — This is a big loss for the Montreal Canadiens, no matter how you spin it.
Andrei Markov, who has spent 16 years with the franchise and is prominently featured among its leaders in games played (990), points by a defenceman (tied for second with Guy Lapointe at 572) and assists (ranked sixth with 453), will not be returning to Montreal. Instead he’ll be plying his trade with a KHL team next season, having made the decision to return to his native Russia where his career as a pro hockey player began in 1998.
"I guess now it’s time to move on," he said in a statement before answering questions during Thursday afternoon’s conference call. "It is sad for me to leave. This organization was a big part of my life and always will be, but I’m looking forward to the next opportunity."
Markov’s departure leaves a gaping hole on the left side of the Canadiens’ defence that can’t be filled by any of the remaining free agents on the market. It’s a hole that also can’t adequately be filled by lefties Mark Streit, David Schlemko or Karl Alzner, who were all recently acquired by the Canadiens.
You can reference the near $8.5 million in cap space the Canadiens have to play with as a positive for the team, or you can point to Markov’s age—he’s 38—as a reason for being satisfied general manager Marc Bergevin didn’t offer him a considerable portion of that space to remain for another year or two. But you can’t argue the team is better off losing him for nothing.
Markov was Montreal’s most effective puck-mover and its second-most efficient defender; a minute-munching power-play specialist who could turn the game with a blind breakaway pass from the corner of his own end or a perfect one-time setup for any of the team’s shooters at the opposing blue line. He scored six goals and 30 assists and finished plus-16 in 61 games this past season, averaging 21:50 in time on ice per game. He offered a level of play that was congruent with what he had shown throughout his tenure, giving every indication he could sustain it moving forward in spite of his age.
Even if some Canadiens believed offering him a two-year contract worth as much as $12 million was too big of a gamble to take; even if they believed offering him one year at $6 million was too risky, this can’t be the ending most were hoping for.
It’s certainly not the one any party of this negotiation was angling for.
It was in April, during the Canadiens’ locker cleanout day, that Markov had expressed his desire to retire with the only team he’s ever played for in the NHL. Bergevin had said on July 2 that he was still holding out hope he’d return on a deal that fit with what the club could afford.
"To make a deal, it always takes two people," said Markov. "I’m not going to go through the numbers, all the conversations, all that stuff. It is what it is right now."
On Thursday, Markov confirmed he was seeking a two-year contract for the financial security of his family, and he also admitted he’d have been willing to accept a one-year deal to remain with the Canadiens. But it’s clear now that he and Bergevin couldn’t find middle ground on a salary that would’ve satisfied him.
It’s a sad reality.
"Arguably one of the best defencemen in franchise history, Andrei was a model of dedication to the great game of hockey," read a statement from Canadiens owner Geoff Molson. "Andrei’s commitment to our franchise was second to none," Molson added.
Markov showed it in saying that, despite entertaining discussions with other clubs, he couldn’t see himself pulling on another NHL team’s jersey.
Instead he’s moving with Sonya Sonechka, whom he married on July 13, his twin boys and newborn daughter, and rejoining his 15-year-old son Danii in Russia. He’ll have a chance to win the Garagin Cup and likely be able to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
"For the athletes, it’s a great experience; it’s a great feeling to represent your country in such a big tournament," said Markov. "It’s huge. It’s something special."
He listed winning a Stanley Cup with Montreal as another special something he had always wanted to achieve. It didn’t happen and doesn’t appear likely to in the future, regardless of his willingness to one day return to the Canadiens.
Now the focus shifts to how Bergevin will spend Montreal’s remaining cap space. He’s got holes to fill at centre, and Markov’s departure leaves the team in need of a defenceman (or two) that can transition the puck from defence to offence efficiently and contribute on the scoresheet.
It’s not an enviable position to be in for a team that’s aiming to improve on its first-round dismissal from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2017, but that’s the one the Canadiens find themselves in.