Friday, December 18, 2009

Let the dominoes fall

Friday's announcement that Andrei Markov will be back in the Canadiens lineup in Long Island on Saturday night probably shouldn't have been too much of a surprise, because Jacques Martin strongly hinted at it a night earlier.

Though Martin was asked directly about Markov's visit with team doctor David Mulder, he skirted the question, clearly adhering to a PR strategy stating that Friday was the day to spoon feed the Markov news to the Montreal media.

But for the first time of the season, Martin voluntarily brought up the notion of injured players returning not once, but twice. And he did so without even being asked directly. Clearly, he knew then what we all know now, and I think something he said that night is probably the most important chain reaction of Markov's early return.

He spoke of returning players allowing him to "classify" other players in their proper slots.

We won't see that Saturday night if Roman Hamrlik is unable to play, and Markov won't likely be playing the same kind of minutes he would normally in case.

But when he is, and when Hamrlik returns, Montreal's defence will be exponentially improved.

Right now, certain people are playing far more than they are used to. Josh Gorges is logging 21:42 per night, over a minute and a half more than last year. Hal Gill is at 19:43 per game, his highest level since he played 20:42 with the Leafs two years ago. Paul Mara's 20:18 per game is his highest since three years ago.

In fact, the only two defenceman aside from Markov who are accustomed to playing over 20 minutes a game are Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek, which means two thirds of Montreal's defence corps is playing outside its comfort zone.

There are 120 minutes available for defencemen to play in a regulation hockey game. When Markov is back to full speed, he should take up about 24 minutes, while Hamrlik and Spacek will probably be pared down to 21 or 22 minutes a game. Whoever eventually plays with Markov or Hamrlik ( it looks like it might be Ryan O'Byrne with Markov on Saturday, but I doubt that will last) will likely be called on to play 20 minutes as well.

That leaves a little over 30 minutes for the last pair to play, and I don't see Martin breaking up the Gill-Gorges pairing, so they'll likely get knocked down at least two or three minutes a night in ice time. Gorges spends much of the game battling for position in front of the net and taking a beating while doing it. Gill appears to collapse a lung every time he has to retreat into his zone to collect a dump-in. I would have to think a reduced workload will make them both extremely more effective.

Hamrlik, meanwhile, won't be facing the opposing team's best forwards on a nightly basis, a job he's been doing very well thus far. So let's say the Habs are playing the Capitals, and suddenly, instead of checking Alex Ovechkin all night you're suddenly called on to watch Tomas Fleischmann. With all due respect to Fleischmann, that's a far less taxing assignment for Hamrlik, which should make him a much better player as well.

Let's suppose that O'Byrne actually winds up sticking as Markov's partner, though I think it will probably wind up being Mara eventually. But if it's O'Byrne, just imagine what that pairing could do for him. We saw it with Mike Komisarek before, maybe we'll see the same Markov effect on O'Byrne. And if not him, then maybe the effect will work on Mara.

Then there's Marc-Andre Bergeron, who will be lining up at forward Saturday, but will still be on the point opposite Markov on the power play. Teams have been cheating over to Bergeron to take away his shot from the point, but with the power play flowing through Markov on the other side teams won't be able to do that quite so much, which should allow MAB some more time to get some shots to the net. And we've already seen evidence that when that happens, the power play works.

The domino effect is that if the defence is more effective, the Canadiens should spend less time in their own end, whether Markov is on the ice or not. That should allow the Habs to have an improved transition game, which won't be very hard to do because the bar is very low in that department right now. Improved transition can lead to an increase in attack zone time, which often times leads to drawing more penalties from the opposition, which leads to goals for and prevents goals against in one fell swoop.

So while Canadiens fans shouldn't be expecting too much out of Markov on Saturday in Long Island, it's not overstating things to say that Markov's arrival will have an impact on a whole slew of players, perhaps half the team.

I've been writing it for two months now that if the Habs can remain within striking distance of aplayoff spot, hovering around the .500 mark, then Markov will give them a shot. Well, after Friday night's games, the Habs are in a virtual four-way tie for ninth in the east with 33 points. But technically, the Canadiens are 12th because they've played the most games of the four teams.

This recent five-game swoon has left Montreal four points out of eighth, but only six points out of fifth. With 46 games left on the schedule, those are not insurmountable deficits, but the climb back will have to start on this seven-game road trip that begins Saturday night. Each and every one of those games is winnable, but none are guaranteed simply because the Habs are not nearly good enough to be able to mail it in and win.

But I think it's safe to say that Markov's mere presence, even if he himself is not his usual dominant self, will make this team a whole hell of a lot better.


Biffle said...

Thank goodness our team is starting to heal. For all the doom and gloom around here regarding the team, I still think we're in OK shape given how bad the East is.

If the Habs roll back in from this road swing against teams we must beat with 8-9 points, the fun will begin. Montreal will be in thick of things for a 5-8 spot (possibly 3rd because no one seems to want the NS aside from Buffalo), playing with the "A Team" for the first time since opening night.

TK said...

Bang on with your assessment of the defensive corps. I look forward to seeing improvements in the breakout- something that has been embarrassing to watch all season.
However, I would temper any predictions on what the defense should look like at full strength. I have been jaded by all these injuries this season. To the point where I am not so optimistic the entire defensive corps can stay healthy for a long stretch of time. Hopefully the worst is over. Gorges, Gill, O'Byrne and Mara (to some extent), have all demonstrated they could step up and play those extra minutes if need be. Actually, I take that back about Mara. He hasn't been very impressive

TK said...

ps- Lucic and Komisarek showdown tonight. Should be entertaining

john deere said...

Even if the Habs get fifth place in the East I still don't see them winning more than one game against Pittsburg (who would be their first round opponent). That to me is their fundamental problem. Yes, they can may make it into the playoffs but that is where the road ends.

On another note, if they are going to trade Halak I hope they get a player like Darren Helm (Detroit) because he is both affordable and they could use a player like him.

pmk said...

the sporatic hab-it?