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Habs try to sort out defense

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BROSSARD, Que. – He's played so little over the past two seasons, it's sometimes easy to forget that Andrei Markov is considered by many to be the best player on the Montreal Canadiens.

A sublimely talented defenseman that is among the best in the world at his position, Markov, 32, is still working his way back from his second reconstructive surgery on his left knee in a span of eight months, a knee that limited him to just seven games this season.

With the Canadiens being eliminated from the playoffs Wednesday night in Boston, the focus shifts to how GM Pierre Gauthier handles the delicate situation of Markov's impending unrestricted free agency on July 1.

While Markov's ability to come back as strong as he was before the two surgeries is a matter of great debate in Montreal, Gauthier unequivocally stated Thursday that he is interested in re-signing the star defenseman and keeping him with the only team he's ever known.

"Of course we'd like to keep him," Gauthier said. "We know Mr. Markov loves Montreal and would love to come back, and he's told us that. We've told him that as well."

Back when he stunned Montreal hockey fans in January with the announcement that defenseman Josh Gorges would be lost for the season to surgically rebuild his right knee, Gauthier was quick to point out that the injury would not affect the team's desire to bring back the pending restricted free agent.

However, until Thursday, Gauthier was never as definitive about Markov.

He is Montreal's highest-paid defenseman at $5.75 million per year, and logic would dictate he would be in line for a raise based on the quality of his play on the ice. The problem is that Markov hasn't been on the ice very often over the past two seasons.

Of Montreal's 190 regular-season and playoff games since Jacques Martin took over as coach at the start of last season, Markov has played just 60 of them.

"Durability is something you always evaluate when looking at free agents," Gauthier said. "Mr. Markov has been with us since the beginning, he's a very strong player and I think any team would like to have him. So we'll see what we can do. But there are no promises as to what kind of direction those things take. We'll do the best thing for the franchise."

If all Gauthier had to worry about was Markov, he would have a relatively easy offseason ahead of him. However, the reality is that he has to fill out practically his entire defense corps for next season.

In addition to Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill, James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara are headed for unrestricted free agency on July 1, while Gorges, Yannick Weber and Alexandre Picard will be restricted free agents.

That leaves only rookie P.K. Subban and veteran Jaroslav Spacek as defensemen under contract with the Canadiens for next season.

It means massive changes are quite possibly coming along the blue line.

While Markov's impact on the team can be quantified through the use of statistics, someone like Gill provides something to the Canadiens that is not quite so tangible.

Every time Martin is asked to assess the development of Subban he invariably mentions the positive influence Gill has had on him, and he did so again when asked about it Thursday, with Gauthier sitting right next to him.

Last season, it was Gorges who benefitted the most from Gill's mentorship, emerging as an elite shutdown defensemen in the playoffs and crediting that emergence on the sound advice he received from his wise defense partner.

On Thursday, when asked to think of the possibility of Gill no longer being in Montreal, Gorges left no doubt of just how big a mistake he thinks that would be.

"Talking with some of the staff today, the first thing I said was that no matter what happens, we have to get Hal back," Gorges said. "You don't see it enough watching the games, a lot of people just look at numbers to figure out how good a player he is. But what he brings to this team is invaluable. It can't be replaced. He's kind of the cornerstone of what we're trying to build and the direction that we want to send this team in. If you lose that, you`re losing a big piece of how this dressing room is put together."

Gauthier admitted Thursday that what Gorges was referring to will be a factor in his decision on whether or not to bring back Gill.

"Defense is not only a matter of individuals," he said, "it's a matter of chemistry."

There is also the matter of Gill's tremendous degree of influence on what is perhaps the Canadiens most important asset. Subban and Gill may seem like the ultimate version of the odd couple, but they have built a relationship that has major benefits going in both directions.

Gill has mentioned over and over again this season how much he's learned by watching Subban operate on the ice – not something veterans usually say about rookies.

Subban, meanwhile, has learned a lot about being a professional both on and off the ice from Gill. He recounted yet another example of that Thursday, recalling a practice early in the season where Martin put his team through a bag skate. Gill – who would not list foot speed among his strengths – beat Subban up and down the ice that day, and when practice was over the rookie was informed just how unacceptable his effort was.

"He ripped me apart for it after the practice," Subban said, smiling about it now. "When I come to the rink every day, whether it's after a tough loss or a big win, you look at a guy like him. You want to know, what's Hal like today? What's he like after a bad loss? What's he like after a big win? You look at guys like Brian Gionta, like Hal Gill, they're the same all the time. They never change. They never get too high, they never get too low. That's just the experience of it because they know as you high as you go, you're going to come back down at some point."

Coming off a disappointing playoff loss, Gill – who turned 36 on April 8 – made no bones about what he'd like to see happen.

"I'd love to play (in Montreal) until they kick me out," he said. "I'd love to take another run at the Cup."

The problem for Gauthier is he has eight other defensemen without contracts for next season, and many of them feel the exact same way Gill does.

Hamrlik, who turned 37 on April 12, is already on record saying he would take less than his current $5.5 million salary to return to Montreal. Sopel, Mara and Weber have all expressed their desire to return.

It has the makings of a busy summer for Gauthier, and likely a few disappointed defensemen looking for new places to play.