Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Player Spotlight: What is Alexei Emelin?
The title of this post isn't confusing Alexei Emelin for an androgynous being. Nor is it referring to the popularized photos of his gut during training camp in combination with his thundering #EmelinBoom hits to claim he is some non-human mutant. It is of course also not about his ethnicity, religion, or any other such trait. No, the important "what is" question surrounding Emelin with the Montreal Canadiens is what he can be as a player moving forward.
Nearly every summer since his selection by the Habs in the 3rd round in 2004, Canadiens fans were teased with the possibility that Emelin may take his game to North America. Yet, the 6'0" solid brick rearguard remained in Russia, first playing for Tolyatti Lada, and then joining Kazan Ak-Bars. Many had given up on the 25 year old ever crossing the ocean, so when rumours again popped up last summer about him signing a deal, fans remained skeptical.
And yet here he is, on a one-year, CBA-mandated $984,200 deal. He's had a few ups and downs this season, but has mostly come as advertised, delivering bone-crushing blows to opposing forwards. But is that all he is? Or what is he? Let's look at some possible roles Emelin could play with the team down the stretch and beyond.
Heavy Hitting Defensive Liability: Through preseason and into the start of the year, this is the kind of player Emelin looked to be. He didn't look out of place on his more comfortable left side, but still had some spatial issues related to adapting to the smaller ice surface. He would sometimes put himself out of position, and/or have trouble tracking loose pucks in his feet or vicinity. The problems in his game were heightened when he was shifted to the right side while trying to make adjustments in his North American rookie season and his game trailed off a bit. But there is a place for even such a player in Montreal given the general softness of the team's back end. If this is who he is, he would simply have to be played with a defensively competent partner. Think a Mike Komisarek in his final year with the Canadiens, were his play was subpar, but he was still quite physical.
Crease-Clearing Defensive Defensemen: At this point, however, it is unlikely that the above is all Emelin can be. His game - even on his unnatural right side - has come along way since day 1, and he has generally been trusted with increasing minutes and responsibilities as the season has progressed (with of course the occasional exceptions since the team has regularly dressed 7 d-men for much of the year). Emelin has remained physical while improving his play in his own end, making him an extremely valuable part of the d-corps. Think of a young budding Darius Kasparaitis. The kind of guy who can support a risk-taking partner, and that opposing forwards hate skating in against. Of course, such a player would be a key cog to the Habs' future.
Intimidating Two-Way Presence: But let's dream a little. The 2010-11 season saw Emelin set career highs in the KHL, scoring 11 goals and 26 points in 52 games. For a player whose past 4 seasons consisted of 1, 0, 0, and 2 goals respectively, the numbers certainly jumped off the page. Despite a few chances here and there, there were no real signs of that Emelin through the first 36 games of 2011-12, as he collected just a single NHL assist. But suddenly, over the last 6 games, the rearguard has seemed less shy about jumping in to join the rush. During that span, he scored his first two NHL goals and added another helper. He has surprisingly shown some pretty good hands to go along with a heavy point shot, indicating there just may be some offensive upside to his game yet. If he can become even a 30-point player while maintaining his in-your-face style, the team will have a star on their hands.
So what is he? Only time will tell. It looks like he can be a dependable top 4 guy on the left side, offering the kind of size and toughness (even if he won't fight) Montreal lacks. He is most certainly part of my solution to the troubles the team is currently mired in, and I sincerely hope Pierre Gauthier (or his replacement) agrees, and is able to lock him up with a multi-year contract this summer. If most Habs are presently available on the trade market for the right price, Emelin would be one of my few untouchables.