The Montreal Canadiens enter the 2012-13 season looking to erase the memory of a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
While there is a new coaching staff led by Michel Therrien and a new front office led by general manager Marc Bergevin, it could very well be the team's most tenured player who allows the Canadiens to bounce back into the playoffs. Defenseman Andrei Markov played his final game with Vityaz Chekhov in the KHL on Tuesday and reportedly will be heading back to Montreal on Thursday.
And when he arrives, he will be healthy.
Markov has undergone back-to-back reconstructive surgeries on the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and was limited to 20 games during the past two seasons. His new coach is eager to see the 34-year-old defenseman back on the ice.
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Therrien already has a relationship with Markov -- he's the only Canadiens player who was on the club during Therrien's first stint in Montreal, which ended in 2002-03 -- so the coach has a good idea of what to expect from the two-time All-Star defenseman.
"Andrei's going to be one of our leaders," Therrien said at a press conference Monday. "Andrei hasn't played much the last two years, as you all know, and I talked to him before the lockout and he was excited about being able to start the season with his teammates."
Getting Markov back is almost like adding a major free agent for the Canadiens -- but that's assuming he's able to get back to the same outstanding level he displayed in 2009-10, when he played 53 games.
Markov made it back for the final 13 games of last season, and while he did not look like his old self, the Canadiens earned points in 10 of those 13 games, going 5-3-5 with him in the lineup. His time in the KHL during the lockout allowed Markov to play 21 games, including Tuesday's 3-1 win against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod.
Markov's decision to play in one final game with Vityaz caused considerable commotion in Montreal due to his injury history, but he appeared to emerge unscathed. He logged 18:19 of ice time, including 8:26 in the final period.
Therrien, for one, is pleased that Markov will be arriving for training camp with some game action under his belt.
"I thought it was a good thing he was able to go to Russia and play, and I'm sure it will be good for his confidence," Therrien said. "There's no doubt right now that he's able to play, he's healthy, he's 100 percent and he's a huge addition to our team."
Markov's potential impact cannot be understated. Assuming he resembles the player he was prior to the two knee surgeries, the Canadiens are a much better team with Markov in the lineup than when he isn't.
The best example of this came in 2009-10, the last time Markov played a significant number of games. Including the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Canadiens were 29-16-8 in the 53 games in which Markov dressed and 15-23-2 when he didn't. Overall, since the start of the 2009-10 season, the Canadiens have a 38-22-13 record with Markov in the lineup and an 84-86-21 record without him.
"There's no doubt right now that he's able to play, he's healthy, he's 100 percent and he's a huge addition to our team." -- Montreal coach Michel Therrien
Markov's impact is often best seen on the power play, where he is one of the League's top quarterbacks.
In 2009-10, the Canadiens power play clicked 24.5 percent of the time in the 45 regular- season games Markov played; that figure dipped to 18.2 percent in the 37 games he missed with injuries. The difference was equally striking in the playoffs, with the Canadiens scoring on 20.6 percent of their power plays in eight games with Markov but connecting on only 12.8 percent in 11 games without him.
"This is a huge plus," Therrien said of Markov's healthy return. "This is one of the best defensemen in the League, and we're excited he's going to be able to start the year with us."
The question for the Canadiens is whether Markov can be the same player he was before the knee surgeries. Based on his play in Russia, the question is still to be answered. In his 21 games in the KHL, Markov had one goal and four assists; however, he averaged 18:52 of ice time and finished plus-3, second among the team's defensemen.
If Markov can find some semblance of the form that allowed him to be such a difference-maker for the Canadiens before his injuries, the turnaround his club is hoping for this season could very well become a reality.