Andrei Markov still doesn’t think of it as being his time, but when Sheldon Souray made his sojourn across Canada this summer, the onus fell on the Montreal Canadiens’ 29-year-old Russian defenseman to pick up the blue-line slack.
“There had to be a change, and it had to be for the better,” Markov, now in his sixth season, told NHL.com. “I had to play better.”
He has, and the fans have noticed.
Markov has been good enough to make Montreal fans forget Souray and his blistering slap shot. So much so, in fact, that they have voted him into this year’s All-Star Game in Atlanta as a starter for the Eastern Conference.
Souray, now with the Edmonton Oilers, was voted in as a starter last season.
“He was always in the shadow of Shelly, but rightfully so he’s getting the recognition now,” Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek, Markov’s partner on the blue line, told NHL.com. “Everyone in Montreal already knew what he could do and the skills he had, but on a League-wide basis, now he’s getting compared to some of the top guys in the League and in the world.”
Markov doesn’t seek the recognition. He’s soft-spoken, and he admittedly doesn’t like to talk too much. He just figures there isn’t much to say because he plays like … well, he plays like himself. It just so happens that hockey folks now are noticing his abilities.
“I don’t know. That’s a tough question,” Markov said when asked if he’s a leader in the Canadiens’ dressing room. “We have veteran guys and they’re all leaders. I never thought about it. I just try to do my job the best that I can. I’m not that big of a talker.”
Markov’s play is loud enough.
With 31 points in 44 games, including six power-play goals, Markov is on pace for his most productive NHL season. He registered a career-high 49 points (six goals, 43 assists) last season after producing 46 points the season before.
“He’s gotten a lot more comfortable,” Komisarek said. “He’s learned the language and it’s good to see he’s getting the recognition he deserves.”
Markov, though, has made his biggest difference on the Canadiens’ power play.
With Souray on the point last season, the Canadiens ranked first in the NHL by scoring on 22.8 percent of their power plays. Souray had 19 of Montreal’s 86 power-play goals. Michael Ryder had 17, while Markov only had five.
This season, with Markov quarterbacking the unit, the Canadiens still are first in the NHL, scoring on 24.4 percent of their power plays. Markov has six of the goals. Alex Kovalev leads with 11 after scoring eight last season. Ryder, by the way, only has one of the Canadiens' 51 power-play goals.
“It just opened up another door for Markie,” Komisarek said of Souray’s departure via free agency. “It was a huge question mark, and Markie has been dominant this year. He’s been a huge part of the success we’ve had.”
Typically, though, Markov takes little credit for Montreal’s success.
“We’ve got five guys on the power play and we work to help each other,” he said. “It’s not about one guy.”
Markov already had an offensive background before debuting in the NHL in 2000. The Voskresensk, Russia native began his career as a forward before turning to defense on a whim.
“The coach in Russia just came to me and asked me before a game; ‘Can you play defense?’ ” Markov recalled. “I said; ‘Yeah, I can play defense.’ He put me in the first pair, and with good players around me it helped me a lot.”
Markov quickly became the best defenseman in the Russian League. He won its equivalent of the Norris Trophy in 1998 and 1999 before joining the Canadiens, who had selected him in the sixth round of the 1998 Entry Draft.
“How many guys were first-round picks and not playing in the NHL now?” Markov said. “You still have to work at it to show to everybody that you can play in this League.”
Dan Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.