Markov Done For The Season: What's Next For The Habs?
Late Friday afternoon, Habs fans got the bad news that they had been dreading since the November 13th game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
It has now been confirmed by the Montreal Canadiens that defenseman Andrei Markov will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury suffered at the hands of Eric Staal twenty days ago.
Markov will add Alabama to his list of places most people wouldn't even go to die (along with Cleveland) as he will travel there next week for an operation with Dr. James Andrews to repair a meniscus as well as reconstruct his ACL in his right knee, the same knee injured just over six months ago during the playings after a collision with Penguins' forward Matt Cooke. Andrews well known the sports world, having performed the same surgery on Lions' running back Kevin Smith. He has worked with such huge names as Brett Favre, Albert Pujols, Drew Bees and even many of your favorite professional wrestlers such as Triple H and John Cena. So if you can be confident with one thing in this entire ordeal, it's that Markov is definitely in good hands, quite literally.
But despite Andrews' renowned name and experience with similar sports injuries, Andrei Markov's future isn't as rosy as Habs fans would like it to be.
Not only is this the third major injury in two seasons for Markov, but it is the second straight injury to the same knee for the once All-Star defenseman. Anyone who's suffered a significant knee injury in their lives, professional athlete or not, will tell you that you're never the same after your tear a ligament in that area. The muscles never quite return to 100%, and if you don't physically feel the weakness your knees, it will definitely affect you psychologically.
I'm no doctor or medical expert, but with the prevalence of knee injuries in sports, and especially this team in the last couple of years, I've done my fair share of research on the subject, and last February I posted a blog highlighting the various grades of knee injuries after Cammalleri was confirmed out with a similar injury to Markov's, and it might be worth revisiting now.
Cammalleri's injury was of course one to his MCL, or the Medial Collateral Ligament, which is located on the outer part of one's knee. Markov's injury is to his ACL, or the Anterior Cruciate Ligament, which is located on the inner part of the knee and basically holds everything together.
The fact that Markov will require surgery, and that the tear is a complete one from most reports, means that the ACL will not be repaired, it will be "reconstructed". This means that the doctor will actually graft another tendon to replace the destroyed ACL, likely from the hamstring or patellar tendon or something of that nature. The issue here is that not only will the ACL need to heal from the surgery, but also whatever other tendon is weakened by the surgeon in the grafting process. Some surgeons will use tendons from cadavers, so that is also another option.
In any case, the surgery will likely mean a MINIMUM of six months of healing and rehabilitation, which will take Markov into June and completely out of the season. This is of course only an estimate or a guess, and it could very well be much longer, possibly even career ending if the implications of the injury aren't yet fully known.
The most important issue here of course is Markov's health, and one can only hope that he doesn't rush his rehab, as he seemed to do the last time around, having only played seven games since returning from that injury. Of course, whether the injury was a result of a weaker knee (and as I said there was no way that thing was 100%), or simply bad luck will always be debated, of course, but it's something to be considered. You can bet that this time around, there is no way Markov will be cleared medically in time to play any games for the Canadiens, even if they make another deep playoff run.
And that means two things.
1) The Canadiens are now guaranteed to play the rest of the season, or 56 games, without their established number one defenseman.
2) That same number one defenseman has now completed his current contract, and is all but officially, for all intents and purposes, a free agent.
What needs to be explored is what this means for the players, Jacques Martin, Pierre Gauthier and Montreal Canadiens and their fans in general heading forward in a season that has grown to include high expectations for a high performing Habs team.
IF THINGS STAY THE SAME
As it stands, the Canadiens could very well continue the season with the players they have. This would mean that barring any other injuries, your Montreal Canadiens defense would look as follows, in terms of the depth chart (not actual duos):
PK Subban - Josh Gorges
Roman Hamrlik - Hal Gill
Jaroslav Spacek - Yannick Weber/Alexandre Picard
Based on the expectations around Andrei Markov, his skill and pedigree, it's evident that rookie PK Subban becomes this team's "number one" defenseman, regardless of his benching the other night. Subban plays in both zones, is a major focus of nearly every opposing team, and attracts attention from pretty much everyone.
Josh Gorges retains what I believe was his "number two" spot since the beginning of the season. He is the Canadiens unsung hero, he plays in every situation from shutting down opposing stars even strength, playing on both the PK and PP and most importantly, blocking shots.
Roman Hamrlik also retains his spot as "number three" defenseman, a role he's occupied, in my opinion, since his arrival in Montreal four seasons ago. Hamrlik has an amazing pedigree and also plays in every situation, and has been known even recently to be matched against star players from opposing teams such as Alex Ovechkin, but in the end, he's over 35 and he will only wear down as time goes by. He can pivot up on occasion, but for all intents and purposes, he is a number three.
Hal Gill is the other defenseman to jump up on the depth chart, but his age and slow starts, not to mention the physicality of his style of play and his tendency to take penalties without the puck are a big concern.
Jaro Spacek keeps the number five spot, a spot that has been his since his arrival in Montreal. Unfortunately, he's paid as a number four defenseman but hasn't been able to deliver on that role. Many will argue that he has occupied a bigger role on this team, but his ice time need to be limited to maximum 20 minutes and he won't be able to withstand the long term difficulties with being a top four d-man.
The sixth spot could be Alex Picard or Yannick Weber on any given night. Weber has more scoring upside, while Picard is much bigger than Weber, and has so far been more reliable defensively than what Weber has shown in the past, which isn't much, at least in Montreal.
Potential internal additions to this group, if anyone else suffers a significant injury, are Brendan Nash, a big 6'3", 23 year old defenseman who showed promise in training camp, local boy Frederic St-Denis, AHL mainstay Mathieu Carle, or team captain Alex Henry. None of these names are exactly awe inspiring.
As for the coaching staff, it really won't change anything in terms of the way they do business. Jacques Martin of course plays a notorious defensive style, but if he's to make any long-term adjustments, it's to ensure that no one gets overworked and is susceptible to any significant injury. The way to do that is to spread around the minutes, have some faith in the younger defensemen who probably have better legs and conserve energy heading forward.
There are basically 120 minutes in a game to go around for defensemen, assuming 2 are always on the ice, including special teams. This rounds out to a flat 20 minutes per d-man if the ice time is distributed equally. Of course, the fifth and sixth defensemen on a given night are going to play less, and the top two are going to play more, but when you consider this mathematically, there's really no reason for any of the older defensemen to be playing more than 18-20 minutes, especially in this grueling month of December. Theoretically, if Martin spreads the wealth, the season is doable with this group of defensemen.
IF GAUTHIER MAKES A TRADE
Let's be frank. Assuming that the Canadiens can go forward with this group of defensemen for another 56 games, skewed in the favor of games on the road. While when you look at things objectively, the top six defensemen the Canadiens are currently icing really don't look all that bad, and have done a lot of good things for the Habs in the past, the odds of this group remaining intact for another 56 games are slim to none.
Josh Gorges has been taking a lot of "therapy days", too many for me to feel comfortable. Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek are all over 35 and all missed significant time last season, and the odds of seeing them on the injured reserve again is higher that I would like.
So what is GM Pierre Gauthier to do? He has cap space, there are always teams that are struggling to stay under, and this could be an opportunity to not only stabilize the back-end this season, but to also make things look a little better for the Canadiens heading forward, into the off-season, where the Habs have to deal with four UFA defensemen and another RFA defenseman.
Who the Canadiens could target is completely open to discussion and interpretation. The names that have been thrown around the most amongst fans and pundits have been Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ed Jovanovski of the Phoenix Coyotes and Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks. It literally could be anyone else, but we'll focus on those teams and they're pros and cons if Gauthier decides to make a trade.
Ed Jovanovski is the oldest of the three at 34 years old. He's 6'3", 220lbs, and has 14 seasons of NHL experience. He currently sits with 10 points on a successful Coyotes team, and he is definitely on the downfall of his career. He is on the final year of his contract, and his cap hit is $6.5 million. In just a few words, this would be a rental and frankly, I wouldn't make this move if I was Gauthier.
Kevin Bieksa is the younger of the three at 29 years old. He's 6'1" 200lbs and probably the most physical of the defensemen. He's had a slow season with only one goal and 3 points in 22 games, and seems to be the odd-man out in Vancouver. Bieksa put up 43 points as early as two seasons ago, and could just be looking for a change of scenery. His cap his is $3.75 million, but he is also a UFA at year's end. That being said, he could be the player that comes the cheapest out of the three, considering his performance this season and his status on the team.
Finally, Tomas Kaberle is, in my opinion, the best fit out of the three for the team. He's 32 years old, and coming off a great season on a bad team last year with 49 points. He hasn't scored any goals yet so far this season, but then again, neither has any other Leaf, but he has 11 assists and an impressive even rating. Nine of his 11 points are on the powerplay, and that's definitely something to consider. He also has some decent size, at 6'1" 215lbs, and the fact that he's Czech is an added bonus. He's good friends with Tomas Plekanec and would fit in well with the Czechs on defense.
I think you can guys can guess which of the three I would like in a Habs uniform...
Two problems arise with Kaberle, however. First, the GM trading him has been known to be kind of a dick, and has refused many good deals for the Czech defenseman. Add this to the fact that he'd be dealing with a divisional rival, and the price could become rather over-inflated. Moreover, Kaberle is on the tail end of a deal which only pays him $4.25 million a year, and considering he would likely be the premiere defenseman on the market come July 1st, especially with Markov's status unknown, it could also mean the Habs could have a difficult time keeping Kaberle at the end of the year.
Still, reward never comes without risk, and as I sit here, I can't help but feel that the Canadiens need to stabilize their back-end. It has been the subject of way too much controversy over the course of the season so far, both offensively and defensively, and someone like Kaberle would has an incredible gift when it comes to distributing the puck, would make the loss of Andrei Markov sting a lot less.
Of course, we haven't even scratched the surface when it comes to the needs of this team, which include a top six winger. Even more to consider when playing around with the near $5 million Andrei Markov will save this team on the injured reserve.
But that of course is the subject of another blog.
If you've actually read this far, I hope that I haven't bored you, and I implore you to join us for our matinee liveblog tomorrow featuring the Montreal Canadiens and the San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 1:45PM, so get there early!
Also, keep an eye on TCL for this weekend's Habs panel, which will feature Kyle Roussel - who will likely be a dad by the time the blog goes up - and a guy who is already a great dad, Yves on Habs.
Until then, feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments on how the Canadiens could and should handle the Markov situation and all that extra cap space he has left us with.