Friday, November 25, 2011

Montreal Canadiens: the untapped offensive potential of Alexei Emelin

After playing the past seven seasons in Russia with Tolyatti Lada and Kazan Ak-Bars, rugged defenseman Alexei Emelin decided to come to North America to make his NHL debut for the team that drafted him 84th overall way back in 2004. In 2010-11, Emelin had his best offensive season in the KHL, registering 11 g and 15 assists for 26 points, while earning 117 penalty minutes. He also finished the year with a +16 ratio.

Despite playing in Russia for what seems like an eternity, Emelin is still only 25 years-old, the moment most defensemen reach their maturity and full potential. While Emelin will never be a constant point-producer in the NHL, he can certainly do better than his 0 point in 14 games so far for the Canadiens this season. Emelin has proved that he can block shots and make a good first pass. But right now, it's clear he is focusing on the defensive aspect of his game, but he showed in the KHL that he can contribute offensively too.

Often a healthy scratch at the beginning of the season, Emelin has now played the last six games due to a rash of injuries on Montreal's blue line and has slowly adjusted to the smaller NHL rinks and the more physical style played in North America. The 6'2'' 220 lb rearguard looks a lot like Red Wings Nicklas Kronwall when he made his North America debut in 2003-04. Kronwall is a hard-hitting defenseman that developed his offensive skills over the years to become Detroit's most important defenseman behind Nicklas Lidstrom. The former has amassed 191 points in 405 games in the NHL, or also one point every two games. Emelin is still far from producing offensively at such a good pace, but let's not forget Kronwall only registered 14 points in 47 games over his first two NHL seasons.

Emelin is currently ranked 32nd in the NHL in total hits with 49 in only 14 games (3.5 hits per game), but is ranked 6th for hits per game behind the likes of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, Troy Brouwer, Mark Fistric and Steve Ott. Not bad for rookie defenseman used to play in the KHL, not a league that is known for its physical play.

Alexei Emelin hip-checking Ales Hemsky at the blue line

Alexei Emelin with another hip-check on Tomas Vincour

Emelin is by far the Habs most physical defenseman as the rest of the defensive corps is composed of smaller players (Diaz, Weber, Spacek, Gorges) or softer players (Gill, Markov, Campoli) than the Togliatti, Russia, native.

Currently earning $984,200 this season with the Canadiens, Emelin will be a restricted free agent at season's end, so the team will have to decide if they want to sign him long-term in order to prevent him from returning to Russia. The left-handed blue-liner moved to North America in part because of Andrei Markov, who has yet to play this season recuperating from a knee injury that sidelined most of last season.

One has to wonder if Jacques Martin will reunite the two Russians on a defensive pairing in order to groom the young Emelin along a proven veteran to back him up and repair his occasional blunder. Once Emelin earns the confidence of his head coach, he will most likely receive more power play time than the 2:11 minutes he received so far this season!!

Through 14 games this season, Emelin is only seeing 15:11 minutes of time per game despite all the injuries the Canadiens sustained on the blue line. However, when Emelin gets more ice-time on the special units (playing only 43 seconds per game on the penalty kill this season), his ice-time will increase exponentially. With only four penalty minutes, Emelin has been very disciplined despite his rugged style. He has also taken only one penalty while drawing seven, which ranks him 7th in the NHL with a very positive ratio.

Now the question remains: Will Emelin be dressed over smaller defensemen Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber when the Andrei Markov and Jaroslav Spacek come back into action in early December? Or will Emelin be made a healthy scratch more often than not?

Fred is a freelance sports write and translator, as well as a featured Montreal Canadiens blogger on and a baseball columnist on Fred also joined in time for the 2011-12 season.

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He'll probably start taking chances offensively whenever he manages to communicate with his teammates in English.

For now, he's playing it safe, especially after being an healthy scratch a few times, i'm sure we would do the same in his position.

With JM, if you make one mistake you could be benched.

There are lots of parts of Emelin's game that we have yet to see!

He is still getting used to the North American game and rink.

That said, he seems to be getting better all the time. I think that once Markov is back he will be able to help Emelin a lot.

I can see those two paired together and Makry taking Emelin under his wing, just like Kovalev did for Markov.

We have to remember that it wasn't until Kovalev joined the team that Markov truly became a star!

Yesterday's poor showing by Diaz and Weber on the powerplay will only accelerate Emelin's presence on the power play. Weber was especially weak on the puck creating bad turnovers...

I think that first pass he makes (and most passes that aren't of the blind-backhand-along-the-board type) are exceptional. He's a tape to tape passer, and he releases quick without holding onto it too long.

As you all say, when that ice-time and special unit time increases, we'll start to see his potential. So far it's looking good though. Definitely rooting for this guy to be a staple on our blue line.

@Nathan: excellent point and very true! His first pass is phenomenal and as he gets more comfortable he is using it more and more.

I actually made that point in a post-gamer a few games back, where in his own end the puck is on his stick for such a short amount of time.

He retrieves it and gets a quick, short, tape-to-tape pass to a winger, turning the play up ice quickly.

That's key for the small-ish Habs, who otherwise can get overwhelmed by the opposition's forecheck.

Weber was absolutely horrible against the Pens and Diaz seems to have plateaued...Emelin, on the other hand, seems to get better each game.

I think, by the end of the season, he'll be a key cog on the Habs backend.

He does seem to have a pretty good shot and a very underrated passing ability, but right now I think he's just concerned with the defensive side of his game. Especially when he's gotta cover up for Diaz (which is just a weird pairing but shows the staff has faith in his defensive game already, at least enough to be with a fellow rookie)

I saw him say something in English at the end of the Carolina game! Anyway, according to Gorges, he knows all the on-ice calls so communication isn't much of an issue in my opinion...

Diaz and Emelin finished +1 yesterday and play more than 18 minutes each, while Gill and Weber were both -3 and played only 16 minutes. I think Weber is starting to lose JM's confidence, especially after he was directly responsible for Staal tying goal.

@Number31: Good point about the on-ice communication. However I think Emelin's ability to speak English has more to do with him feeling (more) comfortable in North America than just on-ice stuff.

Remember that Markov too was a little more unsure of himself until Kovalev joined the team.

Kovy's presence helped Markov come out of his shell off the ice which in turn helped him realize his full potential on it.

I get the feeling same will happen for Emelin once Markov is back in the lineup.

I honestly don't know what to expect with Martin and our D. I think the entire hockey community sees that if we go with Diaz, Weber, Spacek we essentially have 3 versions of the same player.

All 3 are 5'11, have a good first pass out of the zone, have a limited physical aspect, albeit Spacek is a veteran who shoots left and is a little more physically matured than the other 2.

Emelin on the other hand is 6'2 or 6'3 depending on where you look and is a nice 220 lbs. He is a very good shot blocker, is the most physical D-man on the team and comes with a salary that is more than manageable at just under $ 1million.

The question is what with Martin and Gauthier do?

Spacek is almost assured a roster spot and rightfully so so it really comes down to Diaz, Weber and Emelin.

Weber has more experience, is used both on the PP and PK with much more regularity than the other 2 and unless traded will likely remain on the team because of his ability to play 4th line RW as well.

So really it is between Diaz and Emelin. Who has JM's confidence? Although Emelin is getting better, Diaz still plays more 5 on 5, on the PK and on the PP than Emelin, not to mention comes in at $100k less per year.

People argue that we definitely won't send Emelin to Hamilton because of his clause in his contract to allow him to go back to Russia. Problem is that this risk never stopped the organization with Valentenko or Lahti or Samuelsson who quickly jumped back to Russia, Finland and Sweden respectively?

The club seems to make decision based on what is better for the team today. Not 2 or 3 years from now but today. And with a history of blunders with coaching and with player development it scares me that the wrong decision will be made once again.

Now if it was up to me then I am going the way of what KP said.

Markov and Emelin united together. A combination of size and skill, 2 guys that speak the same language. Only question is whether Emelin can play the right side. I know he did this often in the KHL but getting accustomed to playing this side in the NHL will again be a learning curve. They are my second pairing.

That leaves PK, Gorges, Gill, Spacek, Campoli and Weber to complete the bottom 4.

I like how Gorges and Subban are playing together so IMO they cannot be separated as our top pairing. They are the youngest of the group and so will eat the most minutes.

That leaves Gill as the #5 and then barring another trade IMO Campoli as the #6. Although I really like Spacek I like Campoli who brings more size, a better skater, and more offensive at this point of his career.

Looks like Emelin will be paired with least in the short term. Question now is if this is a long term pairing of if Martin has united the 2 guys that will have the least amount of ice time.

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