Thursday, June 16, 2011

Player Spotlight: Alexei Yemelin

Every Thursday on Dan's Daily Dose - Your Canadiens, we will provide an in-depth look at a member of the Montreal Canadiens organization. Today we begin with newly signed defenseman Alexei Yemelin.

For anyone that follows the development of young players drafted by the Habs, Alexei Yemelin has been the fabled Russian unicorn year after year. It seemed almost like a ritual that every May or June since he was drafted in the third round in 2004, a story would leak about Gainey or Gauthier trying to get him to sign a contract to leave the Russian league and give North American hockey a try, yet in the end, he always preferred to stay closer to home.

Now at 25 and coming off a career year offensively with Ak-Bars Kazan, Yemelin has finally decided that he feels ready to step in and immediately help shore up the Canadiens group of blueliners. But can he? Let's take a deeper look into the player Yemelin is. To begin, here was an assessment of him back prior to the 2004 entry draft:
The comparison to Darius Kasparitis stuck and wasn't all that far off, with Yemelin quickly becoming known for vicious hits, often on (or over) the line of legality. At 6'2", 220 lbs, he is big enough to win battles in the corner, and proved dependable enough in his own end to represent Russia as a member of the national team in numerous tournaments. On his resume are a gold medal at the U18s, 2 silvers at the WJCs, and more recently, bronze and silver medals form the mens' World Championships where he faced off against many current NHLers.

In today's game, when you play like Kasparitis did, you're bound to spend considerable time in the penalty box, and Yemelin hasn't escaped that, developing a bit of a bad reputation for his temper, resulting in untimely calls against him and even a few suspensions. Back in March 2009, his play led the opposing team to take liberties with him, and Yemelin was seriously injured during a fight after having his head slammed into the ice once he was on the ground, defenseless. Fortunately Yemelin would recover and return unharmed the following season.

On one hand, for a Montreal team which spent a league-high 546 minutes killing penalties last season, adding a player who is prone to temporary lapses in judgment may not seem like a good fit. However, if Yemelin adapts his style to be able to play on the safe side of that borderline, much the way teams like the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers aim to do, he could be the exact piece the Habs starting 6 was missing, providing a hitter the likes of which we haven't seen since Mike Komisarek's earlier years.

And then the unexpected happened. After seasons of 1, 12, 7, 4, 3, and 7 points respectively, Yemelin exploded during the 2010 KHL playoffs, recording 5 goals and 13 points in 22 games. In one post-season, he produced beyond his previous season total high! Momentum carried it over into the 2010-11 regular season, where he finished 11th in the league for scoring amongst d-men, notching 11 goals and 26 points in 52 games. Perhaps he has it in him to develop into a more complete defenseman than many gave him credit for.

While it is unclear if his offensive game will ever translate to the NHL, his shot means that should he earn a spot with the Habs, he will at some point get a look on a second powerplay unit. This will limit unnecessary minutes for players like Josh Gorges and Jaroslav Spacek, who can focus on other aspects of their game, and also presents Yannick Weber with some new competition for ice time.

Whether or not Yemelin starts the year in Montreal may depend largely on what moves Pierre Gauthier has left up his sleeves over the remainder of the off-season. With 7-8 spots available, P.K. Subban, Hal Gill, and Jaroslav Spacek are already signed, while Josh Gorges and Yannick Weber should be returning given their RFA status. This leaves room for 2-3 additional player, which is likely to include Andrei Markov and at least one other UFA blueliner. All of this means competition will be fierce for Yemelin, but he does have a card in his back pocket; much like when the Canadiens signed Mark Streit out of Switzerland, Yemelin has a clause allowing him to return to his native land rather than report to Hamilton. After struggling to sign him for so many years, it is unlikely the team will let him go without taking a long look, so unless they can convince him that a stint in the AHL will be best for his development, he is almost certain to appear on the opening night roster. The question then becomes how big of a role he'll be able to play with the club, and to answer that, we'll have to wait three long months till training camp.

No comments: