MONTREAL — We’re 25 days into unrestricted free agency and I haven’t gone a single one of them without being asked about Andrei Markov’s uncertain future with the only NHL team he’s ever played for.
So when the news broke on Tuesday that left-handed defenceman Mark Streit was being repatriated to Markov’s Montreal Canadiens on a one-year, $700,000 contract, I expected the questions would only intensify. Predictably, the text messages poured into my phone—nine of them within an hour of Streit’s signing—asking if this in fact signified the end of Markov’s tenure in bleu, blanc et rouge.
He and Streit play similar styles—both of them having made their names in this league as puck-moving power-play specialists—and when you consider that the former has been embroiled in a negotiation that could only be described as contentious with general manager Marc Bergevin, and you contemplate that the Canadiens now have eight defencemen on one-way contracts for the 2017-18 season, it becomes hard to deny that the odds of Markov returning for a 17th season in Montreal appear longer than they were 24 hours ago.
But that’s not to say his departure is a lock.
If you’re a Canadiens fan hoping the door is still open for Markov to play his 1,000th game and register his 600th point this upcoming season with the team that drafted him 162nd overall in 1998, the $8.4 million Bergevin still has in cap space could be a conduit to making that happen. There’s more than enough money to fit the Russian rearguard in and even save some for a rainy day. Bergevin has said he wants to have him back, and Markov, who said back in April that he’d like to retire with the Canadiens, has never expressed a desire to play elsewhere.
In fact, sources close to Markov have informed Sportsnet that he has yet to actively seek out offers from other teams.
What’s undeniable though, now that Streit has returned to the team he made his NHL debut with back in 2005, is that Bergevin doesn’t have any incentive to pay Markov any more than he was willing to back on July 1 when the player opted for unrestricted free agency instead of accepting a one-year deal to play for the Canadiens.
Markov had reportedly asked for a two-year contract worth as much as $12 million, and was told privately—and eventually publicly by Bergevin on July 2—that a deal hinged on him accepting less.
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Markov’s decision to hold out made sense, though. On June 15, the Canadiens shipped stud left-handed defence prospect Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay to acquire forward Jonathan Drouin. Two days later they traded left-handed defenceman Nathan Beaulieu to the Buffalo Sabres for a third-round pick before losing lefty Alexei Emelin to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft on June 21. The acquisition of lefty David Schlemko from Vegas on June 22 and the five-year, $23.2-million signing of lefty Karl Alzner on July 1 didn’t do much to change the fact that the Canadiens were in need of a puck-mover or two on the back end.
But Streit’s arrival did.
Streit scored five goals and 16 assists, averaging 19:23 over 49 games with the Philadelphia Flyers last season before he picked up a goal and five assists in 19 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I’m still a pretty good power-play player," the 39-year-old said on Tuesday’s conference call. "You get older and you get smarter. The game is getting faster and faster. I think I picked up a few things and got better at it."
There’s no doubt Streit can still play at this level, but it would be a stretch to say he could serve as an adequate replacement for Markov, who would slot in as the team’s No. 2 defenceman next to Shea Weber if he signed a deal today. He’s nowhere near as efficient as the 38-year-old is in his own end, and the fact that he didn’t dress for more than three Stanley Cup Playoff games—while the Penguins defence was decimated by injury—doesn’t exactly inspire confidence he could fill a significant role with the Canadiens.
But his mere presence on the team’s blue line marginalizes Markov’s bargaining power.
I can’t say for sure if the 36-point performance Markov put up while averaging 21:50 per game last season is his final contribution to the Canadiens. But I do know that if he doesn’t want it to be, he’s going to have to make some considerable financial concessions.
Until that happens, I’ll be bracing myself for more questions about his uncertain future with the team.