After 16 years in Montreal and months of speculation, Andrei Markov is returning to Russia.

The longtime Habs defenceman will not return to the Montreal Canadiens, the team announced Thursday.

"I'm sad," he said. "I'm sad to leave, but it's life."

In a conference call following the team's announcement, Markov said he was ready to stay with the Canadiens on a one-year deal, but that "it didn't work."

"Each and every day, I realized how lucky I was to wear a Habs jersey," he said. "Now it's time to move on."

Markov's departure punctuates a tumultuous off-season for the team, with fan favourite Alexander Radulov jumping to Dallas and top prospect Mikhail Sergachev shipped out for scorer Jonathan Douin. 

Nathan Beaulieau and Alexei Emelin are also gone, meaning three of the team's six regular defencemen last year won't be back.

'Canadiens icon'

The 38-year-old Russian defenceman said that while he's open to returning to the NHL one day, his decision to head back home has a lot to do with family.

He said he couldn't see himself donning another NHL team's colours.

"What I'm going to miss most is when you step on the ice, the crowd," he said.

Markov was drafted by the team in 1998, 162nd overall. He made his NHL debut two years later, going on to play 990 games with the CH on his chest, twice being selected for the all-star team.

Andrei Markov

Andrei Markov debuted for Montreal during the 2000-01 season. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today/Reuters)

Markov, nicknamed "the General" by Montreal media for his skills quarter-backing the power play, is second behind only Larry Robinson in number of games played and points scored by a Canadiens defenceman. 

Robinson played 1,202 games with the team, netting 197 goals and assisting on 686 others, while Markov played 990 games, with 119 goals and 453 assists.

He has as many points as that other legendary Habs defenceman, Guy Lapointe, and more than Doug Harvey and Serge Savard — all of whom have had their jersey numbers retired by the team.

The NHL's website refers to Markov as "a Montreal Canadiens icon."

Was interested in staying

Markov became an unrestricted free agent July 1, marking the first time he was testing the open market. His last contract was a three-year deal signed in 2014.

After the Canadiens were bounced from the playoffs in April, Markov said he wanted to stay in Montreal.

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Andrei Markov gives a kiss to then-teammate P.K. Subban in 2015. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"I've always been here and most probably I'd like to finish my career here, so we'll see what's going to happen in the summer," he told reporters at the time.

Not a particularly gregarious guy, he became known as a steadfast presence on the Habs' blue-line before sustaining serious injuries to his ankle and knee in 2009 and 2010 that cast doubt on his longevity.

However, in recent years he put questions about his durability to rest with three consecutive 80-plus game seasons.

In 2010, he became a Canadian citizen.

"I'm happy to be here and proud to be Canadian," the soft-spoken star said after he was sworn in.

On Tuesday, the team announced it had signed veteran defenceman, and former Hab, Mark Streit to a one-year deal, which many took as a sign Markov would not return.

High praise from Geoff Molson

In a statement, team owner Geoff Molson thanked Markov for his contribution to the team, calling him "one of the best defencemen in franchise history.

"A respected figure around the league and among his teammates, Andrei demonstrated leadership both on and off the ice," he said.

"Andrei's commitment to our franchise was second to none, proven by his overcoming three serious and potentially career-ending injuries. I would like to wish Andrei the best of luck in the next step of his career, and happiness with his family."

With files from CBC's Douglas Gelevan and The Canadian Press