Some players dream of the day they finally reach unrestricted free agency.
The very thought of reaching it for the first time in his career was making Andrei Markov cringe.
The Montreal Canadiens defenseman avoided having to think about what would happen July 1 by agreeing to a three-year contract extension Monday with the only NHL team he has ever played for.
"I'm glad that deal is done," Markov said in a conference call with reporters. "I was a little bit nervous when the time was getting close to July 1. I knew I wanted to stay in Montreal, and I had a feeling it was going to happen."
SOG: 131 | +/-: 12
It is the same salary-cap charge as the three-year contract that was set to expire next week and the four-year contract that expired in 2011. With Markov's contract running through the 2016-17 season, he will have played a decade with the same $5.75 million salary-cap charge since signing a four-year, $23 million contract prior to the 2007-08 season.
It is also the third straight time Markov signed with the Canadiens prior to the July 1 deadline, foregoing every chance he's had to see what the unrestricted free agent market would bear in order to remain in Montreal.
If he plays out his new contract to its conclusion, Markov will have spent 17 years with the Canadiens, putting him in rare company in franchise history. A horrific span of injuries from 2009-12 has kept Markov's games played numbers down, but that kind of longevity would match Larry Robinson's 17 years in a Canadiens uniform as the most by a defenseman and would be the longest any blueliner has played for the Canadiens without ever changing teams.
In terms of his contemporaries, with New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur looking as though he may change teams after 21 years this season, there are very few players who can say they have spent as many as 17 years with the same team.
Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes (19 years), Patrik Elias of the Devils (19 years), Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks (17 years) and Chris Phillips of the Ottawa Senators (17 years) are the only current players with that kind of longevity with a single team, and Henrik and Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings are among those on their way to that number.
"It's not happened a lot," Markov said. "I'm happy to be a member of the Montreal Canadiens and I feel comfortable, and thank you to everybody from the organization to give me the opportunity to stay there that long. For sure it's something special."
After playing 151 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games in four injury-riddled seasons from 2008-09 to 2011-12, Markov has matched that number over the past two seasons, missing one of the Canadiens' 152 games when he was made a healthy scratch in April by coach Michel Therrien to rest him for the playoffs. In addition to those 151 games played over the past two seasons, Markov also played five games for his native Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Markov's last contract extension was signed in the midst of his rehabilitation from his second consecutive reconstructive surgery on his right knee in 2011, and there were serious questions being asked at the time about his ability to stay healthy.
The past two seasons appear to have answered those.
"It wasn't easy when I had all those injuries but I always stayed positive and lots of people helped me a lot like the strength and conditioning coaches, all my friends, the Montreal organization," Markov said. "It helped me a lot. The last two years I felt good. My health is good and I enjoyed the game like I used to. Right now I'm healthy and I'm looking forward to next season."
At age 35, signing Markov to a three-year contract involves a certain amount of risk for Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin because his salary-cap charge will remain on the team's books even if Markov retires. But Bergevin also couldn't risk entering the 2014-15 season without Markov or at least someone that could come close to replacing him, and that player would have been difficult to find on the free agent and trade markets.
Markov was tied for 18th in the NHL in scoring by defensemen with 43 points this season playing a team-high 25:14 per game, ninth-highest in the League. He led the Canadiens with a plus-12 rating, played on the power play and penalty kill and was second only to P.K. Subban in terms of possession stats among the team's defensemen.
Losing Markov would have created a massive hole on the Montreal blue line, and having him for three more years should give time to the Canadiens prospects on defense like Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn to properly develop and slowly grow into bigger roles. And Markov has no intention to use his age as an excuse for his play slipping in the coming years.
In fact, he plans on the exact opposite.
"The game changes, the game gets faster, guys get bigger," Markov said. "You have to be ready for that and that's what I tried to do. At the same time, you try to be better than before. That's what I'm going to try to do, to be better than before. Even if I'm getting older, it doesn't matter. In my mind you can improve your game at a young age or you can be older. Never stop to improve your game."
Markov appears truly grateful to be able to attempt at continuing to improve in Montreal, a city he has embraced as his home. He spends most of his summer in the city, became a Canadian citizen a few years ago and has never known anything else as long as he's been in the NHL.
And he hopes to never find out whether or not the grass is greener elsewhere.
"I feel comfortable there. I love the team, I love the city, I love the fans. We have the best fans in the world. I want to play the rest of my career with the Montreal Canadiens," Markov said. "I've never seen July 1. But I'm happy with that deal and I'm happy to be staying in Montreal."