After making stars of defence partners Sheldon Souray, Mark Streit and Mike Komisarek, Andrei Markov last season set to work on doing the same for Alexei Emelin. It was something to see those two work together. Andrei, having clearly lost a step, would when racing back for a puck sometimes call off the chase, and 'switch off' with Alexei, letting the younger, faster, and usually more conservatively-positioned defenceman go dig the puck out of the corner while he headed off to the front of the net. It was remarkably effective, and the two Russians worked well together.
It is also argued that he had a similar positive effect on P.K. Subban, his first-wave of the powerplay partner, and some fans are already calling for Andrei to be re-signed beyond next season so he can serve as a mentor to the young defensive prodigy. An even more vocal faction claims that Andrei carries too big a cap hit, is too old and slowed by past injuries, and that he's a poor mentor anyway.
Which side is right in the mentorship debate? It depends on our definition of 'mentor'. We tend to think of it in warm and fuzzy terms, of a nurturing older player taking a rookie under his wing and showing him the ins of outs of the position they both play, of the NHL, of the pitfalls of the pro hockey player's life on and especially outside the rink.
If we take a more strict definition of mentor, of someone who is a skilled tradesman working with an apprentice, and sometimes actively teaching, but more often just working alongside and providing examplars by his every day conduct on the ice, then Andrei accomplished that in spades.
Andrei is a bit of an oddball, a prickly fellow, as we saw last season with the "Next question!" press incident. There's also the Habs TV clip where the guys are asked to do an impression of Andrei, where Josh Gorges does a Russian accent and says, in a scolding tone: "Why you always talk so much? You should not talk so much. You always talking." Something like that, anyway, it's hilarious, and gives insight as to who Andrei is. We can deduce that he's not going to mother-hen P.K.
What we did see on a few occasions though, was Andrei, on the ice before a faceoff, or on the bench between shifts, give direction to P.K. It was clear who was talking and who was listening, Andrei would gesture and point and motion, and P.K. would pay attention and nod. I took it as a sign that P.K. respected Andrei, and as an illustration of his growing maturity.
Practically, Andrei's mentorship was demonstrated by P.K.'s qualitative improvement in the offensive zone, and on the power play. His stats bear that out, but it was more than a case of him just doing the same thing but reaping more points. P.K., finally, after seasons of hearing us yell at him through our TV sets to cut down on the big looping backswing prelude to the predictable one-timer, decided to, finally, inject some variety into his game. Instead of being all one-timer all the time, P.K. learned to mix in some feints, some hesitation, some passes, some dekes, some wristers, some slap passes, some walking the line with a fake and another fake to a drop pass back to the spot he and his forechecker just deserted. Some bank passes off the back boards. And more. Finally.
What this did was make him a more formidable weapon, a more multifaceted threat. And I believe he learned this by observing Andrei do all this. Andrei has an arsenal of moves that he displays every game. Most players will, given time, fake one way and go the other. Andrei fakes one way to prepare his real fake the other way, and that's the one other players bite on, hard, while he's already gone the other, original way. He doesn't fake as a formality, as an inevitable sequence, he fakes until the opponent can take no more. He feints to position the opponent where he wants him, and does so as often as necessary. He sometimes fakes a fake, a subtle head bob that stalls the action for half a second, then fakes and goes. The initial bob 'freezes' the opponent; if the opponent was a goalie, he'd drop down to his knees in the butterfly. Add this to his bewildering array of options when choosing whether to shoot or pass or control the puck and skate or give-and-go, and the audacity and capacity to do all this on his backhand too, and that's quite the encyclopedia or training film P.K. is presented with.
P.K. absorbed a lot of this, and this season wasn't solely reliant on his speed and power. He started to use the mental tactics and puckhandling that Andrei uses, and it transformed his game, to the point that he was recognized with a Norris Trophy, an amazing leap for a player who had a difficult time the previous season.
So is Andrei a mentor for P.K.? I say, with the brief preamble above, yes. Conclusively.