One of the biggest reasons the Montreal Canadiens were able to get off to such an excellent start to the 2012-13 season was the healthy return of defenseman Andrei Markov, a sight unseen for the better part of two years.
During the Canadiens' 20-5-5 start, coach Michel Therrien would often refer to Markov as a general, someone with the unique ability to control the pace of the game whenever he was on the ice.
Markov had been gone for so long recovering from consecutive tears of the ACL in his right knee that many may have forgotten the extent to which he is able to impact a game, whether by smartly and calmly moving the puck out of his own zone or the way he directs traffic on the Canadiens power play.
30 IN 30: MONTREAL CANADIENS
Markov began the season in the Kontinental Hockey League playing 21 games with Chekhov Vityaz during the lockout. That was one more than he had played in the two previous seasons combined.
Playing alongside fellow Russian Alexei Emelin in Montreal, Markov looked very much like his old self during the first two months of the NHL season. He had points on eight of Monteral's nine power-play goals of the season.
But as the Canadiens entered the final stretch of the 48-game season, Markov's play began to slip and signs of fatigue became increasingly evident with each passing game. His pairing with Emelin began getting victimized at even strength on a regular basis, and when Emelin tore the ACL in his left knee in a game against the Boston Bruins on April 6, the level of Markov's play dipped even further.
By the end of the season, Markov had been on the ice for 36 of Montreal's 79 goals allowed at 5-on-5, or 45.6 percent, according to behindthenet.ca. While Markov scored 10 goals and finished tied for fourth on the Canadiens with 30 points, his minus-9 differential was the worst on the team by a wide margin.
"He's a competitor," general manager Marc Bergevin said of Markov after Montreal's elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Ottawa Senators in the first round. "He's a strong defenseman and these two played well together. Was it because [Emelin] was out? I don't know. … Not playing for two years, then playing back-to-backs and four [games] in six [days], he did get tired. But overall, I think we're pretty happy with the way he performed this year."
The question is whether Markov, who turns 34 on Dec. 20, will be able to manage the rigors of a full 82-game slate -- particularly in an Olympic year when the schedule will be similarly compressed, as it was last season?
With Emelin out until at least November recovering from his knee injury, the Canadiens will be quite thin on defense -- meaning that Therrien will likely rely heavily on P.K. Subban, Josh Gorges and Markov to carry a big load in the early going. Markov will be fresh for that portion of the schedule and shouldn't have trouble with a big workload, but it is the impact that may have on him late in the season that could be troublesome for the Canadiens.
Much of the team's ability to improve its performance in the spring will depend on how well Markov manages his energy to maintain his level of play until then.