Showing posts with label Spotlight. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spotlight. Show all posts

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Player Spotlight: P.K. Subban

If you're a Habs fan, you love him.  If you're a fan of any other team, you think he's overrated and love to boo him every time he touches the puck in your building.  But an objective hockey fan will tell you that Montreal's P.K. Subban is one of the league's more promising young blueliners.  But you know about him on the ice.  So today, we're going to focus on a few off-ice Subban stories you may be less familiar with.

It is no surprise to anyone that P.K. can be described as a character off the ice.  It being NHL draft season, with the Central Scouting Combine taking place this whole week, a lot of attention has been placed on Subban's relationship with is brothers, given that Malcolm Subban is the top-rated North American netminder out of this year's crop.  The next Subban in line is another blueliner, Jordan, who made his debut for the Belleville Bulls (meaning that, yes, all three Subbans have played for the OHL's Bulls) last season as a spry 16-year old.  He impressively scored 20 points in 53 games a rookie, and is one many are following closely for the 2013 draft, deemed to perhaps be just as skilled as big brother P.K.  What he doesn't have is P.K.'s size, measuring in at only 5'9" and 170 lbs as of now.

P.K. and his brothers were a big part of the George Stromboulopoulos show after last night's game 1 win by the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Here's a clip of most of the Subbans segment if you missed it:

You can watch the full episode on the CBC website here:

For those not on Twitter, P.K.'s personality also shone through a little teasing he did for his followers last week.  He first posted the following:
Naturally, this had many Hab fans dreaming the announcement would be that the Restricted Free Agent has agreed to a new long-term deal with the Canadiens.  The Twitter world was abuzz, and P.K. made them wait it out for nearly 24 hours before this announcement, done in a style only fitting of Mr. Subban himself:
So yes it was Subban who officially unveiled the new Twitter account of Carey Price - or apparently C-Prizzle / Carey Cash Prizzy to his friends - to the world.  Still waiting on that contract announcement, P.K.!

For his antics, a lot of people around the web have referred to Subban as a "troll."  This led to HFBoards user Seb creating a meme, creatively warped a photo of Subban by integrating the infamous troll face drawing to create this masterpiece, side by side with the troll face for comparison:

Pretty well done!  But P.K. isn't ALL jokes and gags, so we leave you with one of his Nike AlwaysOn pieces that show the more intense side of the training-obsessed Subban that has gotten him to where he is today:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Player Spotlight: Lars Eller

[ Player Spotlight Archives: Alex Henry | Carey Price | Josiah Didier | Morgan Ellis | Alexei Emelin (1) (2) | Tomas Kaberle | David Desharnais | Olivier Fortier | Ron Wilson | Scott GomezMike Cammalleri | Travis Moen | Andreas Engqvist | Josh Gorges | Alain Berger ]

The soft-spoken young-looking Lars Eller has a heap of pressure on him when he made his Montreal Canadiens debut in 2010.  Eller had just been acquired for the hero that had carried the Habs to the Conference Finals, Jaroslav Halak, as the club decided that Carey Price would be its goaltender of the future instead.  Arriving in Montreal as a 21-year old in just your second season playing in North America with the expectation that you were good enough to give up a national her for; no easy shoes to fill.  But Eller isn't one to fold in the face of pressure - in fact, he's one to battle through it with the trademark ear-to-ear grin on his face, the kind of bright disposition that almost says, "I'm just happy to be here."  And be here he has, improving from a 7-goal first campaign to 16 this past season while winning the hearts of many a Hab fan along the way.

Eller, who celebrated his 23rd birthday just 9 days ago, has had lots more to celebrate of late.  First, for his spinorama penalty shot goal in his memorable four goal-evening, Eller was rewarded with the "Play of the Year" title by Canadiens fans on the team's official website, defeating Carey Price in the finals after the goaltender had won the award three seasons in a row.  You can relive the native of Rodovre, Denmark's crazy evening below:

While disappointed to not get to play any playoff hockey this Spring, the Canadiens' elimination allowed Eller to attend the IIHF World Championship, where he helped Denmark to narrowly avoid relegation from the top group.  The Danes won only one game, 2-0 over Latvia, but combined with taking Italy to overtime, it was enough to remain ahead of the Italian squad to return to fight again in next year's tournament.  The Danes loaded up their top line, with Eller most frequently skating on the New York Islanders' Frans Nielsen's wing, and having Jannik Hansen of the Vancouver Canucks on the other side.  Eller led his club both in goals (3) and points (5) in their 7 games, and perhaps most impressively, led all forwards in the entire tournament in time on ice per game for the preliminary round, with his 20:56 coming in just one second ahead of Nielsen's (but both far ahead of anyone else).

Eller is still young and brings size to Montreal's offense with his 6'2", 198 lbs frame (which many hope he can still fill out a little more), but where he fits over the longer-term remains a question.  He has displayed incredible hands - perhaps the best stickhandling on the team - at times, but has also struggled to finish around the net.  After scoring 16 in 79 games this past season, it isn't unreasonable to think him capable of 20 next year, but it will depend on the role the team slots him into.  Will he spend time on the wing in a top 6 position with Tomas Plekanec or David Desharnais?  Will he return to his familiar third line center role?  If so, will his primary task be as a two-way, shutdown center, or will the team role three primarily offensive trios?  Perhaps the best case scenario would be for him to begin in the middle on the third unit, but show enough offense to be deserving of a promotion.  Having both of its top 6 offensive centers under 6 feet (one way under 6 feet) is a weakness of the Canadiens, so if Eller could show capable of playing such a role, no one would complain about a club able to ice 3 "top 2" trios.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Player Spotlight: Alex Henry

Why, you may wonder, am I devoting a spotlight piece to a defenseman who has played only 2 games in a Canadiens uniform, and those being back in 2008-09?  It's because after four seasons of reliable service for the Hamilton Bulldogs - three spent as the team's captain - Alex Henry is moving on.  It was announced yesterday that the tough 6'5", 220 lbs blueliner has signed a deal with the Dusseldorfer Eislauf Gemeinschaft (DEG) Metro Stars of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) for next season.

Henry, 32, is no stranger to Germany, having suited up for Kaufbeuren ESV of the 2nd tier league there during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.  The DEG Metro Stars were Germany's top club in the 1990s, winning championships in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1996, but none since, losing in the finals in both 2006 and 2009.  Brendan Shanahan played three games for the team during the 1994 NHL lockout, scoring 5 goals and 8 points.  The team's roster today includes former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin, one-time New York Ranger Jeff Ulmer, short-term St. Louis Blue Andy Roach, and recent signee Michael Catenacci, who spent this season with the Kitchener Rangers.

Before joining the Canadiens' organization, Henry had played 175 NHL games, split between the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals, and Minnesota Wild, the last of which he even briefly served as captain of.  Not the swiftest of foot, he had been relegated to an AHL role for two full seasons before Montreal signed him, so it was of little surprise that he would be spend most of his time with the club in Hamilton.  While he has little offensive game to speak of, Henry is a tough customer, racking up 127, 154, 96, and 94 penalty minutes in his four seasons with the Bulldogs respectively.  He brought leadership to a team that saw the likes of Yannick Weber, Ryan White, David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty, and P.K. Subban graduate to the NHL during his tenure there.  For this reason, I wish him all the best in pursuing his career overseas.  He could have been a valuable asset with Nathan Beaulieu, Jarrred Tinordi, Morgan Ellis, and Greg Pateryn all set to make their pro debuts with the Bulldogs in the Fall, but their arrival also means less available time for a guy like Henry, so the Canadiens will have to look elsewhere for a veteran presence on the AHL blueline.  He was about to become one of three 'Dogs veteran D UFAs this summer along with Joe Callahan and Garrett Stafford, and it is possible that one of the other two is retained to fill this role.

As a parting tribute to Henry, here's a look at some of his spirited bouts:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Player Spotlight: Carey Price, the Cowboy

[Player Spotlight Archives]

What can we tell the diehard Montreal Canadiens fan about Carey Price that he or she doesn't already know?  Probably not too much, though there was some good news just yesterday that Price has fully recovered from his concussion and thus may now travel home to British Columbia.  It is based on this news that today we take a step back from Carey Price the goaltender and look at Carey Price the cowboy, providing some insights on the roots of the stone-cold Habs keeper.

To begin, here is a clip done by TSN on Price's favourite off-ice pass-time:

And more Carey on horseback:

Price's cowboy origins come from his growing up in Anahim Lake, British Columbia, a village which, when combined with surrounding areas, has a population of just 1,500 (just 360 of which are in the community of Anahim Lake itself).  Nearly half of that number is made up of Ulkatcho First Nations living on nearby reserves.  The local Stampede is the highlight of the region's social calendar, and thus the foundation of Price's love for the rodeo.

Anahim Lake, a small area hours north of Whistler (or a 10-12 hour drive from Vancouver), is primarily a community based on forestry, though cattle farming, sport fishing, and mushroom picking are also important economic activities.  Outdoor adventure opportunities bring some tourism to the area, with the village being surrounded by the snow-capped Coastal Mountain Range.  It is no wonder, then, that Price has such a calm and peaceful demeanour from growing up in these parts.

If you ever wanted to make a pilgrimage out there in Carey's honour, there is actually a small airport serving the region with direct service from Vancouver on Pacific Coastal Airlines.  You can spend a weekend or more camping and enjoying nature's beauty at "resorts" like this one:

So how did a country boy from such a tiny community rise to NHL superstardom?  Anahim Lake has no real arena, with just an outdoor rink to serve as entertainment and recreation (photo credit for left).  In fact, the village also has no educational institutions that go beyond the 9th grade level.  Thus, for Carey to become the man he is today took serious dedication on the part of his family, with his father shuttling a young Price to and from the nearest rink - that in Williams Lake - three times a week to play minor hockey.  Many parents make big sacrifices to cater to their childrens' professional sport aspirations, but consider that the drive from Anahim Lake to Williams Lake is about five hours each way.  The solution to this?  Fortunately, Jerry, Carey's father and a former goaltender taken in the 8th round by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1978 in his own right, was a licensed pilot and was thus able to make the commute in shorter time spans when weather conditions permitted.

Carey has come an awfully long way to be where he's at today, and I couldn't be happier to hear that he's received a clean bill of health to start his off-season relaxing and training regimen.  For the Canadiens to bounce back at all next year, they will need him at the top of his game, so here's to a great and productive summer for a remarkable young man.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Player Spotlight: Josiah Didier

Out of the 2011 NHL draft, the only seemingly surefire future Habs is first round selection Nathan Beaulieu.  But during this year, you've undoubtedly heard about the hot start (and less about the subsequent cooling off) of Magnus Nygren, about the impressive play of Darren Dietz, about the disappointment of Olivier Archambault, and the World Junior appearance by Daniel Pribyl.  But the Canadiens selected another player in the draft, even before all of the above names aside from Beaulieu.

That player, who most have forgotten, is Josiah Didier, a defenseman who made his debut for the University of Denver as an 18-year old this season.  The 6'2", 200 lbs blueliner's stats far from jump off the page, scoring just 3 assists in 41 college games, but how was his overall game?  Today we look at a collection of reviews on the play of yet another prospect in Montreal's overflowing defensive pipeline.

To begin, let's learn a little about who Didier, taken in the fourth round, 97th overall, is:

If you would like to ask him how he thinks he's like Niklas Hjalmarsson, or why he would rather have super strength than the ability to fly, you can follow this possible future Hab on Twitter here:!/JDidier4

Didier is considered a physical yet mobile defensive blueliner, completing his sophomore season with a +6 rating.  He led the club with 68 blocked shots, and recorded 115 hits - a strong total in the generally less physical NCAA.  Denver decided that, despite his young age, he was ready to make the jump this season, and assigned him a fifth year student/teammate, John Ryder (undrafted, frequently Didier's partner on a bottom pairing), as a mentor.  Ryder was immediately impressed with Didier, citing him as a quick learner who will stand up for a teammate and never back down from anybody, sentiments echoes by the team's head coach George Gwozdecky.

Didier showed some of his trademark toughness as, despite suffering a relatively serious injury late in the season, he was back in the lineup a week later, playing through the pain.  Based on all of these traits, it may sound to you like the Habs found another Josh Gorges to add to the system, and while the comparison speaks to Didier's ceiling, let's not get carried away.  Didier is still a long-term project at best and far from a sure-thing to make the NHL some day.  Most see his maximum potential as a defensive third pairing guy.  But toughness and a right-handed shot will be welcome in the Montreal system, and as such his college career over the next few years should be interesting to follow.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Player Spotlight: Morgan Ellis

No content today, so instead I'll profile one of the most underrated Montreal Canadiens prospects currently in the system, being Shawinigan Cataracte's defenseman Morgan Ellis. Ellis, 19, is in his fourth and final season in the QMJHL, having been dealt this year from the team he captained, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, to fellow Hab prospect Michael Bournival's Shawinigan Cataractes. The move puts Ellis on a contending team where he is often paired with top prospect Brandon Gormley, and ensures him a participation in the Memorial Cup since Shawinigan is this year's host.

Though equally as known for his steady defensive play, Ellis has set career highs already this season with 12 goals and 41 points. Since joining the Cataractes, the 6'2", 196 lbs blueliner has registered 5 goals and 16 points in just 15 games.

Here are some clips of Ellis's play. If you like what you see, give him a follow on Twitter, @morganellis4.

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.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Player Spotlight: How Long of a Stay for Tomas Kaberle?

When Montreal Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier sent Jaroslav Spacek to the Carolina Hurricanes in return for Tomas Kaberle, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he had received the best player in the trade. Though a good teammate, Spacek, at age 37, had little to no trade value, though the Canes may be able to ship him off as a rental for a mid-late pick by the trade deadline. Kaberle, on the other hand, was traded away from Toronto last February and earned the Leafs a top prospect in Joe Colbourne, along with 1st and 2nd round draft picks. Since then he has added a Stanley Cup to his resume, and at age 33, his 13 points in 20 games in Montreal would average out to 53 over an 82-game season.

Sounds great, right? Then how exactly was Gauthier able to pull off this miraculous theft? Let's start with his stops in Boston and Carolina. Yes, he won a Cup with the Bruins, but the team was far from happy with his performance. With just 9 points in 24 regular season games, and 11 in 25 in the post-season, this is hardly the output the B's wanted from an offensive blueliner. The problem with Kaberle is his ineptitude in his own end, unable to be trusted at 5-on-5 without a defensive stalwart beside him. So if he isn't putting up points, his value to a team is hugely diminished. After signing a UFA deal with Carolina, he scored 9 points and had a -12 rating in 29 games, leading to his trade to Montreal. During the press conference about the trade, when discussing signing Kaberle to a 3-year deal, 'Canes General Manager Jim Rutherford went as far as to say, "I should have known better."

Speaking of that contract, it is of course the main reason Kaberle was available so cheaply. Kaberle is due $4.25M per season for another 2 years beyond this one, a huge cap hit for a bottom pairing powerplay specialist who has failed to lift Montreal's powerplay out of the league's basement. Hindsight may be 20/20, but for far less money, the Habs might as well have retained Marc-Andre Bergeron in a similar capacity. This very summer, powerplay d-men who will make less than Kaberle who will be UFAs include: Kurtis Foster, Sheldon Souray, Jason Garrison, and Sami Salo. Are they all 50-point guys at this stage of their career? Maybe not. But the question is, what do the Canadiens need out of this roster slot moving forward? Will Kaberle have only passed through Montreal for a brief stint during his newly-become journeyman career?

I didn't like the trade when it was announced. It severely handicapped the team's payroll, knowing that Carey Price and P.K. Subban need considerable raises this summer, and Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais are due for the same the year after. After having dealt Mike Cammalleri to Calgary, the team has regained a little breathing room, but the question remains as to whether or not the money is being spent in the right place. To me, the ideal situation was that Kaberle would produce (as he has), and that Andrei Markov would return to the line-up in early February - a line the team fed us back in December/early January. Then, once Markov proved he was on his game, Kaberle could be shipped to a desperate club before the deadline for a similar little-to-no return for which he was acquired.

Obviously, that hasn't happened. Kaberle has produced offensively (and even has a positive +/- rating), but is near invisible in most aspects of the game, while the Canadiens continue to show few signs of being able to challenge for a playoff spot (the crushing win over Detroit aside). To limit his minutes, along with those of a slowing Hal Gill, the team has opted to quite regularly dress 7 d-men. The bigger disaster, though, is Markov, who ominously has yet to start skating again following his "minor clean-up" surgery early in December. There are legitimate questions at this point as to whether Markov will ever return, or how hampered his play may be if and/or when he does.

So what is the answer? If Markov doesn't return by the trade deadline, it is perhaps likely that Kaberle remains a Canadien into the summer months. I'm not a fan of his, but with the poor or inconsistent play of P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber, the team needs someone with offensive vision at the point. However, the tradability of his contract at any given point is a question. It's not quite a Scott Gomez contract - it will be possible at times to find takers. But not always, which makes me feel that if there is some interest in Kaberle's services between now and the deadline, the team should jump on the window of opportunity. On a team filled with big, tough, shutdown blueliners, Kaberle is still actually a pretty good fit. On a team with P.K. Subban, Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber, and Andrei Markov (all of whom I would rather have than Kaberle for reasons of cost, potential, or ability), he will eventually find himself as the odd man out.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Player Spotlight: What's in Store for David Desharnais?

For a 25-year old second year NHL'er to improve his points-per-game average from .5 in his rookie season to over .7 as a sophomore, scoring 35 points in 49 games and becoming the team's top offensive pivot, is quite a feat. Such a player would normally be seen as an up-and-coming star; a forward with great potential for a long and productive career.

So where then has the hype machine for Montreal Canadiens center David Desharnais been? With 2 goals and a helper in last night's 7-2 win over the first place Detroit Red Wings (and even if I'm fully on Team Tank, I'll admit that feels good once in a while), Desharnais has passed Tomas Plekanec for top spot in points amongst centers on the team, and is tied for 2nd in points amongst all Habs with linemate Max Pacioretty (behind other linemate Erik Cole).

Has the lack of promotion been because Desharnais is just a product of his linemates? Certainly having twin towers on either side of him hasn't hurt his statistics this year, but he also looked dangerous when playing with Mike Cammalleri for a stint. Is it because he's a one-dimensional offensive player? He may sometimes be dominated in his own end, but he has managed to maintain a +11 rating on a cellar-dweller team this season while playing an average of 17:50 a night. Maybe it's because he can't win a face-off? He did start the season off slowly in that department, but he has improved back up to the 50% mark. No, the reason for the lack of belief in Desharnais's abilities has nothing to do with any of his hockey skills. Clearly, the only reason some wonder about his future is his 5'7", 177 lbs frame.

Small players never have it easy on route to the National Hockey League. They have to prove themselves over and over again to show that they can compete with the big guys in a rough and tough game. Desharnais has done just that throughout his career, never being drafted but earning a contract with the Canadiens organization thanks to QMJHL seasons of 51, 97, 118, and 108 points. But even under contract, he was deemed unprepared for the American Hockey League, spending his first pro season in the ECHL. Would it be too much for him to handle? His 106 points in 68 regular season games, 33 in 22 playoff games, and league MVP award all said bring on the next challenge. In his rookie season in Hamilton, he scored 24 goals and 58 points in 77 games and in 09-10, in addition to making his NHL debut for 6 games, he improved his Bulldog production to 78 points in 60 games, not to mention 23 in 19 post-season contests. And then the jump to the NHL, where after a solid first season last year, Desharnais seems to be only getting better. He has succeeded everywhere he's gone.

I've seen it asked by fans over and over again whether David Desharnais would even be an NHL player in other organizations. It's getting harder and harder to say "no" to that question as he continues to display an off-the-charts offensive skill set. Does he need big linemates to be successful? It definitely helps, just as playing with Vincent Lecavalier and/or Steven Stamkos helped the development of Martin St. Louis in Tampa Bay (and his incredible skills of course helped their production as well). The problem then is the fit in Montreal. The Canadiens don't have an abundance of large forwards for DD to play with, and also lack size down the middle. So how do you make it work?

The easy armchair GM answer, which I've advocated for previously, would be to trade one of Desharnais or Tomas Plekanec (your two undersized top 6 centers) and bring in a big, physical, offensive powerhouse #1 C. Signed at a very cap-friendly hit of $850,000 for next season, Desharnais's value is likely as high as it will ever be. Such a move would provide needed balance to the lines and improve matchups against bigger opposing players. Unfortunately, such centers don't grow on trees, and if the Canadiens can't lose enough games to draft Mikhail Grigorenko, given a lack of solutions on the UFA market this summer, there may not be a quick fix.

So what's our next option? Get bigger. The Canadiens aren't that far off from this point honestly. With Pacioretty, Cole, and Rene Bourque, if Andrei Kostitsyn can also be re-signed, you would only need to look for one more offensively capable player with size to ensure there will always be enough space for the smaller men to work their magic. If you can replace Scott Gomez with a Tuomo Ruutu, and perhaps add a Paul Gaustad to center the fourth line (giving you 2 smaller centers in the top 6, but two bigger centers with Gaustad and Lars Eller for the bottom 6), then there may not be any problem having all of Desharnais, Brian Gionta, and Brendan Gallagher dressed up front.

But if Desharnais is the one to be moved, then I won't have a problem with it. In fact, I'll applaud Pierre Gauthier for getting maximal value out of an asset some thought worthless not long ago. Assuming that is, that I deem the return acceptable. Otherwise, I reserve the right to organize a protest outside the Bell Centre expressing my discontent. And as a Habs fan, I know I'll have plenty of company.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Player Spotlight: Olivier Fortier

[Player Spotlight Archives]

Olivier Fortier is hardly a household name, even amongst Montreal Canadiens fans. This is, in part, no fault of his own, as Fortier has missed considerable time over his three year professional career due to injuries.

Montreal's third round pick in 2007, Fortier was never considered a prolific scorer, though he did top the 1 point-per-game mark in his final season with the Rimouski Oceanic, putting up 35 points in the 29 games he was limited to.

Unfortunately, he missed all but 1 regular season game in his rookie year with the Hamilton Bulldogs (2009-10), yet was still dressed for the team's 10 playoff games, a testament to his sturdy and reliable defensive play from the center position (he won the Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the QMJHL's top defensive forward in 2007-08).

His statistics may not seem overly impressive; 9 goals and 20 points over 68 AHL games last year, with further injury making him available for just 1 playoff game. But it says something about a player when, with those numbers, he continually earns scoring line and powerplay ice time. This isn't a case of Jacques Martin and Mathieu Darche either; he is never slotted into these roles, but rather works his way up. Fortier's shifts are earned strictly through hard work, faceoff skills, and a nose for the net.

Four AHL games ago, Habs fans were excited to see the debut of Louis Leblanc on the professional stage, returning from injury to join the Hamilton Bulldogs. And rightfully so. Leblanc dazzled with a goal, 2 assists, and first star honours in his debut. Much quieter also making his season debut that night was Fortier, held off the scoresheet. But perhaps you've missed what happened in the 3 following 'Dogs games, where Leblanc was held to just 1 assist total (not saying he played poorly), while Fortier potted a goal on each night (albeit all in losing causes) to give him 3 through 4 games.

Comparisons between Leblanc and Fortier won't end here as they will be battling for a similar job with the Canadiens in coming seasons. They are of similar size (both 6'0" and south of 200 lbs), versatile enough to line-up on wing or at center, and their bread and butter is two-way play. Hey, you can't even play the language card, with Fortier hailing from Ancienne-Lorette, Quebec. Of course, Leblanc's upside is much higher than Fortier's, and for Fortier to have any shot at an NHL future, he will need to stay healthy and prove the injury bug is behind him, but at 22 years old, he may be one of the least-talked about near-NHL ready prospects the Canadiens have.

Fortier will never be a top 6 forward in the NHL, but he could make a solid third or fourth line center. His limitation in Montreal may be his very average size on a team that wants to get bigger, but he has the potential to be a Samuel Pahlsson-type player with his defensive acumen, skating ability, and work ethic. Fortier will be a restricted free agent this summer, and with the Canadiens having a fresh group of young talent slated for Hamilton next season, he'll need to produce well and stay in the line-up to ensure he remains in the organization's long-term plans. Hopefully he does stick around, as losing a potential young NHL'er for nothing on a team with - at times - questionable bottom 6 depth seems like mismanagement.

You can catch Fortier, Leblanc, and their Bulldog teammates tonight as the team takes on the Houston Aeros at 7:30 PM EST. Listen to one of hockey broadcasting's great, Derek Wills, call the game on CHAM 820 radio here:

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Coach Spotlight: Ron Wilson

[Player Spotlight Archive]

Instead of focusing on a player today, given this week's announcement by the Canadiens, we'll look at a member of the organization's coaching staff.

Ron Wilson, who is in the unfortunate and confusing position of sharing a name (but no relation) with the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was named by Pierre Gauthier this week as an assistant coach to Clement Jodoin with the Hamilton Bulldogs for the upcoming season. There was a vacancy to be filled since both Randys - Cunneyworth and Ladouceur - were promoted to jobs with the NHL team.

So, who is THIS Ron Wilson? Well if the news sounds familiar to you, that's because it isn't Mr. Wilson's first spin in the organization, having held an assistant coaching role with these same Bulldogs from 2003-04 through 2008-09 (when he also briefly stepped in as head coach). He then spent 2 seasons with the Chicago Wolves, before now returning to Hamilton. In all, he has coached an impressive 1,194 games at the American Hockey League level and won 2 Calder Cups - with Saint John in 2000-01 and with the Bulldogs in 2006-07.

Born in Toronto, Wilson played junior hockey in what was then the OHA, and was drafted by the Canadiens in 1976. After spending time with the team's AHL affiliate (then the Nova Scotia Voyageurs), Wilson was dealt to the Winnipeg Jets where he made his NHL debut at the age of 23. Despite strong first seasons of 57 and 51 points respectively, inconsistencies in his game were evident, and he soon found himself battling for ice time. After 11 seasons of bouncing around between the Jets in the National League and various farm clubs, he found full-time employment with the St. Louis Blues midway through the 1989-90 campaign and spent the following three seasons there. Wilson would finally get to play for the Habs in the final year of his NHL career, 1993-94 (sadly missing a Cup ring by one season), during which he scored 12 points in 48 games. In all, he played 832 regular season games in the National Hockey League, finishing with 110 goals and 216 assists for 326 points.

Following his time in the NHL, Wilson would play 2 years in the IHL and one in the ECHL before immediately retiring to take a job as an AHL assistant coach with the Springfield Falcons. He has remained in the league since, building an impressive resume, to the point where one would imagine it's only a matter of time before someone gives him a look for an NHL post. Wouldn't it be funny to see Ron Wilson as an assistant coach to... Ron Wilson... some day?!

In the meanwhile, his wealth of experience will be a welcome addition to the Bulldogs' staff in helping prepare the next generation of future Montreal Canadiens to make the leap. In Jodoin and Wilson, the Habs have put in place two guys very familiar with the organization and with sterling records for developing young talent.

Side Note: A story hit the internet last night that the Canadiens might have signed Swedish defenseman Robin Olsson. This was confirmed to be false later in the evening. The Habs still need to add a blueliner for the Hamilton Bulldogs, but it sounds like Olsson is not their man.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Player Spotlight: Scott Gomez

[Player Spotlight Archive]

Certainly, there has been more than enough discussion about Scott Gomez's play, salary, and trade rumours to make any Hab fan sick of hearing his name. We all know he is paid way too much, that Bob Gainey made a horrible trade when acquiring him, and that he is coming off the far off worst season of his career with just 38 points in 80 games and a -15 rating.

So if we all know these things, why are we featuring the Alaskan native in today's Player Spotlight? Simply to look at a skill of his which is occasionally forgotten - one that almost makes his $7.357M cap hit swallowable. Almost.

That skill? The art of the interview. With an attitude perhaps unseen outside of Jeremy Roenick, Gomez flawlessly delivers punchlines and jabs at reporters while maintaining a serious and dry tone and look. His ability to make an interviewer uncomfortable is unparalleled in the league, so today we present you some of his best work over his career.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Player Spotlight: Mike Cammalleri

Think you know everything about the Montreal Canadiens star sniper Mike Cammalleri? Well, maybe you do, but in today's article, we'll try to stump you with some fast facts.

Cammalleri, 29, grew up in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill - a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. While he was raised in a secular home, Cammalleri was in fact born to a Jewish mother (and obviously Italian father) which in the eyes of Judaism make him a Jew. As a Jewish NHL'er, he is in select company, though the Habs have seen several over the past few seasons with Jeff Halpern and Mathieu Schneider making stops in Montreal. Also of note is that his #13 is not considered unlucky in the Jewish faith, as it represents the year of a boy's Bar Mitzvah - his coming of age ceremony.

Like Mike Komisarek, Max Pacioretty, and many other former and future Canadiens, Cammalleri played college hockey for the University of Michigan Wolverines (where Habs prospects Mac Bennett and Greg Pateryn play at present). While there, Cammalleri participated in the Cold War Game, an outdoor classic between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University which, at the time, set the world record for the largest crowd at a hockey game with 74,544 in attendance to watch the 3-3 tie. The record has since been topped twice, but it was still an unforgettable experience for those involved.

Not enough trivia points yet? Flash forward to Cammalleri's first few seasons in the NHL, with the Los Angeles Kings who looked past his diminutive 5'9" height and drafted him in the second round of the 2001 Entry Draft. His statistics with the Kings may be common knowledge, but how about the fact that while living in Los Angeles, he was featured in an episode of MTV's Cribs?! Check it out here:

Still want more? The 2007-08 season marked the first time the NHL played regular season games in Europe, which included a match between the L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks at The O2 in London, England. In a 4-1 L.A. win, the player who went down in history as being the first to score a National Hockey League goal in Europe was, indeed, Mr. Cammalleri.

In Montreal, fans know Cammalleri as a dominant playoff performer. With 13 goals and 19 points in 19 games one year ago, and then 10 points in 7 games this past season, he has established himself as a valuable piece of the puzzle to help the Habs make deep runs in the Spring. But was this the player the Canadiens knew they were getting when they signed him? Not quite. In his time with the Kings, Cammalleri never made the post-season. His first taste of the NHL playoffs was during his one and only season in Calgary, where he managed just 3 points in 6 games. With regular season point totals well below the 82 he scored with the Flames, the "surprisingly" strong playoffs from the player who was just today ranked 9th best LW in the league by Yahoo! Sports help to justify the lengthy and rich contract Bob Gainey awarded him.

Finally, you may be familiar with the famous Cammalleri "Jedi" pre-game ritual from the 2010 playoff run, but did you know that last Fall, it inspired an Easton promo piece starring the forward? See it here:

Want to know even more about Cammy? Follow him on Twitter to get updates right from the horse's mouth! @MCammalleri13

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Player Spotlight: Travis Moen

Today we look at an under-appreciated but extremely valuable member of the Montreal Canadiens, Travis Moen.

Many Habs fans have wanted Moen out of town going all the way back to last off-season. They see his $1.5M in cap space as better spent elsewhere, and/or his 29 year old maxed out body better replaced with some young blood who just MIGHT go on to a better career. But the truth is that Moen brings a lot to the team, and today's spotlight will look at just what he does for the Canadiens.

We'll begin with a fun fact: did you know Travis Moen guest starred on an episode of Corner Gas after winning the Stanley Cup as a member of the Anaheim Ducks? See the beginning of the below video, or, for our American readers... Corner Gas is a Canadian sitcom that pokes fun at life in a small Canadian city in the prairies. Moen, being from Saskatchewan himself, brought the Cup by the show in his time with it.

Ok, back to our spotlight. Acting may not be one of Travis's talents, but getting under the skin of the opposition is. In fact, last season, Moen finished second to only Andrei Kostitsyn on the Canadiens in hits with 129. While you finish crying and/or laughing at the fact that Kostitsyn was our hit leader (and it gets worse - tied for third with 110 was Benoit Pouliot; or how about that our hit leader didn't even finish in the Top 75 league-wide), we'll move on to other strengths Moen brings.

Like, for instance, how he was third amongst Habs forwards in blocked shots last season after just Jeff Halpern and Tomas Plekanec. And third (behind the same two) in shorthanded time-on-ice per game. Or how he doubled the fightcard of the second scrappiest Hab, with 8 fighting majors over the course of that season (a 3-3-2 record according to

Long before there was James Wisniewski playing with one eye last year, there was Travis Moen, barely missing a beat despite looking like an actual zombie:
No, Moen isn't a sexy skill type player. But he IS the kind of guy that does all the little things right, on a team where his particular skillset is far from abundant. He's not the quickest of foot, and his offense is limited (career highs of 11 goals and 21 points), but he has proven that he is the type of player you can win championships with.

During the 2006-07 season, as a member of the Anaheim Ducks, his line with Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer was the top shutdown trio league-wide come playoff time and were perhaps the biggest reason for the Ducks triumph of the Stanley Cup. Moen was even at his best offensively during that post-season, putting up 7 goals and 12 points in 21 games. While not close to equaling that output, Moen also chipped in a couple of big goals during Montreal's 2009-10 run to the Conference Finals, again showing that he can be a big game player.

A lot of the hatred towards Moen in Montreal has been the insistence of coach's to insert him on a scoring line in a top 6 role. But his misuse is not his fault. Hopefully with a deeper Montreal forward group this year, Moen will appreciated for the strong and gritty third/fourth line game he brings the team. While it is unlikely he'll be re-signed after this final season of his contract, everyone should be appreciative that for every game he was in a Habs jersey, he brought his lunch-pale and went to work, giving his 110%.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Player Spotlight + Interview: Andreas Engqvist

[Player Spotlight Archive]

Based on the team's roster as of today, I'd expect the Canadiens to start the season with a 6'4", right-handed center in the line-up. No, Scott Gomez won't become ambidextrous and play while sitting on Brian Gionta's shoulders this year. And no, I didn't mistake "St. Louis" for Montreal when reading about the Jason Arnott signing. The fact is, we have a potential third or fourth line fixture in our system who gets far too little attention.

That player is Andreas Engqvist, a 23-year old Swedish forward who was undrafted but signed to a 3 year entry-level contract by the Habs brass in 2009. But before we get into who this Engqvist character is, let's play a numbers game.

As of now, the Canadiens have 11 forwards on one-way contracts, plus Lars Eller who is unlikely to be sent to Hamilton. The team will dress 12 forwards any given night, and can keep 1-2 in reserve in the press box. Realistically, then, there is at least 1 job up for grabs still with the team. While it's possible that a Brad Winchester or Jarkko Ruutu will be signed for 4th line / reservist duty, at the moment, we can only look to players slated for the Hamilton Bulldogs.

In Hamilton, four to five forwards appear potentially NHL-ready. In addition to Engqvist, there are Brian Wilsie, Michael Blunden, Aaron Palushaj, and Brock Trotter that could be called into service with the big club from day 1. Given that the role to be filled is on the fourth line, the offensive styles of a Palushaj or Trotter are likely to be overlooked, leaving them to call-up roles in case of injury. Barring an inspired training camp, it seems likely that Wilsie will join the Bulldogs to make up for the loss of Nigel Dawes and Dustin Boyd in a scoring role. This would then leave Blunden and Engqvist in competition for the final forward slot in Montreal, with each having points in their favour.

So why do we feel Engqvist will win out? Let's take a closer look at him, beginning with his scouting report in his draft year (though he wasn't selected):

"Central Scouting Report: Moves and skates well for a player of his
size ... good over-all skill level ... a fine stickhandler who plays effectively
in traffic ... a skilled forward with good tools ... needs to
improve intensity."

A main reason he has a good shot at making the team is, as mentioned, he's a natural centerman. With the Habs likely to increase the size and physicality of their fourth unit, neither David Desharnais nor Lars Eller slot in well, and Ryan White seems to project better as a winger. Plus, both Desharnais and Eller are recovering from off-season surgeries, and - particularly in the case of Eller - not guaranteed to be ready for opening night.

Montreal lost Tom Pyatt this summer and a major reason for his departure is the development of Engqvist who can play the exact same game... Just with 5 extra inches of height. Adept on the penalty kill and willing to sacrifice to block shots, Engqvist also surpasses Pyatt in offensive potential, notably raising his game at playoff time with 13 points in 16 post-season contests in his final season in Sweden, and 9 points in 20 games last year in Hamilton, compared to .47 and .35 point-per-game averages during the regular seasons respectively.

Engqvist got a brief taste of NHL action last year appearing in 3 games for Montreal, and whether he starts with the team or not, is likely to increase this number in 2011-12. To get a better feel for him as a player and his thoughts on the coming season, see a Swedish interview with him here (or check the translated highlights below the link):

"I don't regret coming to North America," Engqvist said. "I got a taste of what the NHL is like and I will continue to fight to earn my spot there."

"For me, the AHL was much different than how those in Sweden describe it," he told Marie's Hockey Blog. "Maybe it's just the organization I was lucky to be in, but we took flights a lot, with our longest road trip being just 6 hours, compared to 4-5 hour road trips I experienced with Djurgarden anyway."

"I purposely focused on my defensive game this past year, and now need to work on increasing my production even when playing in such a role. The AHL is different from the Swedish Elite League in that the top 2 lines of each team still have skilled players, but the third and fourth lines generally contain bigger, tougher players and enforcers. In Sweden, those lines are usually reserved for the younger skilled forwards."

"The small ice surface didn't require a big adjustment. The bigger change was the frequency of games, with sometimes as many as 4 in 5 nights in the AHL. It takes a toll on the body," he added.

"I feel I need to improve in every aspect of my game to stay at the NHL level, but I am prepared to battle for ice time in both Hamilton and Montreal. I hope to earn a spot with the big club, and won't make any decisions about my future beyond this contract until we see how this year goes."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Player Spotlight: Josh Gorges

Though our previous two Player Spotlights (Berger, Yemelin) looked at Habs prospects, this weekly feature can spotlight anyone in the organization, and the most appropriate member this week is Josh Gorges – a hot topic of conversation recently amongst Montreal Canadiens fans.

Born in Kelowna, B.C., Gorges was fortunate to play his junior hockey for his hometown team, the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL. Gorges spent 4 years there, captaining his team to a Memorial Cup Championship in his final season in 2004. The fact that Gorges was a captain in juniors has led to a popular internet meme on hockey discussion board HFBoards which has users reply to poor questions or irrelevant threads by asking “Did you know Josh Gorges was the captain of the Kelowna Rockets?”

At 6’1”, 202 lbs, Gorges doesn’t have a particularly imposing physique, but he makes up for it with sound defensive coverage and strong work ethic. A tremendous penalty killer, Gorges found a home as a partner to Hal Gill in forming a top-notch shutdown pair during the team’s Cinderella 2010 playoff run. Over the course of his time in Montreal, he has also played alongside Andrei Markov, and so one of Markov or Gill will in all likelihood begin 2011-12 on his left side.

On the negative side, #26 has little offensive upside, with a career high of 23 points (though he’ll still be just 27 years old in a month’s time), and has at times been linked with balancing his “work hard” attitude with a “party hard” mentality. Now entering his prime as a blueliner, he’ll need to be disciplined as he matures both on and off the ice to fill out and reach his full potential.

Gorges was acquired in the undisputed best trade Bob Gainey made during his tenure as Habs’ general manager. Just prior to the 2006-07 trade deadline, he dealt an aging Craig Rivet to the San Jose Sharks for Gorges and a first round pick. The Habs used that pick to select Max Pacioretty, so while Rivet was never a true impact player and has long moved on, the two assets Montreal acquired now form young cornerstones of the franchise.

Having just completed a cap friendly 3-year, $3.3M contract, Gorges will be looking to cash in this summer. His raise may have been tempered by an ACL injury that cut his campaign short, but it also gives Habs fans reason to be optimistic, as the fact that he had been playing essentially without an ACL for the last 8 years came to light. This means that the Josh Gorges we see in the Fall will be the healthiest that we have ever seen in a Canadiens’ uniform.

Slight panic spread through Habs nation as Pierre Gauthier cleared one dossier after another with regards to his RFAs this summer, but there remained little news of Gorges’ status. Gorges received a qualifying offer so the Habs would retain his rights, and some media pundits spun the lack of a signing as a “rejection” of the offer. It should be clear this should have been no cause for worry – Gorges qualifying offer of $1.1M is far below the salary expectations of either side, and the Canadiens would like to lock him up well beyond the 1 year term of a Q.O. (if he does sign a 1-year deal, Gorges will be an unrestricted free agent next summer).

News broke earlier this week that Gorges has opted to take the team to player-elected salary arbitration this summer, at a hearing date to-be-determined. The process of arbitration is not a positive for player-team relations, as the player and his agent must hype his play and potential beyond the reality of the situation, while the club does what they can to degrade his worth in their eyes, in hopes the arbitrator will find a middle ground. It is very likely it will never come to that between Gorges and the Canadiens, as the two will continue to negotiate in hoping to reach an agreement beforehand. Similar players are often used as a gauge for determining salary, and comparable defensive d-men for Gorges might be Columbus’s Marc Methot (4 years, $12M, $3M cap hit) or St. Louis’s Roman Polak (5 years, $13.75M, $2.75M cap hit).

Your Canadiens had a chance to chat with Mr. Gorges in the middle of his rehab this winter, and there is no reason to doubt his heart is in Montreal. Beyond his well-publicized friendship with Carey Price, he fits in with general locker room vibe. He indicated, during our brief chat, that he had no doubt he would be 100% by the summer and thus trained and ready to go come the beginning of training camp. Perhaps Josh's best quote on his rehab, courtesy the Montreal Gazette: "I told Marky (also rehabbing from ACL surgery) we’re going to get to know each other real well," said Gorges. "It’s nice to know I have him there. I’ve had lots of talks with him on how he’s dealt with his situation, different scenarios (like how) you can’t walk for a few days, driving, He’s been through it once and he’s going through it again."

Don’t worry, Gorges lovers. He isn’t going anywhere. Josh fills a need that no other player in the organization is near-ready to step into, and his defensive style will be greatly appreciated for many years to come by the glut of offensive-minded rearguards the team continues to draft and sign. If anything, by filing for arbitration, Josh has said, "Hey! I don't want this to drag on and on and jeopardize my training camp. Here's a deadline, let's get down to business, hash it out, and move on!"

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Player Spotlight: Alain Berger

As most Habs fans were gearing up for what they hoped to be a lengthy playoff run, the Canadiens made a move that went mostly unnoticed because it wouldn't affect their chances of a deep drive in the 2011 playoffs.

On April 8, 2011, general manager Pierre Gauthier announced the signing of an unheralded forward from the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, Alain Berger. But who is this man of mystery? After last week's player spotlight on Alexei Yemelin garnered a strong response, today we look at one of three (and the only forward) Swiss-born youngsters in the Canadiens organization.

Berger, 20, was born in Burgsdorf, Switzerland, and bounced around Swiss A and B leagues for a few years before making the decision to continue his junior hockey in Canada. Despite going undrafted, Berger put up seasons of 33 and 52 points in the OHL, earning him a 3 year deal with Montreal. He would go on to record 5 goals and 8 points in 10 post-season games this year.

Habs fans got a first look at Berger at the early June development camp, where he clearly stood out due to his size and physical maturity. Whereas size is a weakness for his countryman Yannick Weber, it may be Berger's biggest strength, standing 6'4" and weighing in at 209 lbs. Thus, though his offensive numbers aren't blowing anyone out of the water, he is showing good progress, and as a bigger guy, may take more time to reach his full potential, as the Canadiens are hoping.

The biggest concern with Berger is his skating, as the rest of his game is quite well rounded. He plays a gritty, two-way game, charging the net, screening goalies, and even dropping the gloves when necessary, as witnessed in the 142 penalties he's amassed the last two seasons. He's described as a hard-worker, which is important as he will need to put in the time and effort if he is to improve his footspeed. The Habs brass likely sees in Berger the player they thought they were getting from St. Louis in Ian Schultz, whose development at the pro level took a little detour with a lack of playing time in Hamilton this past season. In any case, it never hurts to have a few extra big bodies around the organization. Ask the Detroit Red Wings if they find it redundant having Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, AND Todd Bertuzzi.

Don't take that as a hype machine, because the Habs would be very lucky if either Schultz or Berger ever produces anywhere close to the output of those guys, but the point remains that they play the same brand of hockey. The majority of his goals were scored on the powerplay, and those mainly from right in front of the net - the type of player Montreal lacks at the NHL level right now. And having a player of that style means it will be very interesting to watch Berger's adjustment and development in the AHL in 2011-12.

Given that tomorrow is the NHL's Entry Draft, it is also important to note that Berger was a teammate of highly rated prospect Boone Jenner in Oshawa. Jenner would appear to be a good fit for the Canadiens, and it is certain that they would have seen plenty of him while scouting Berger, so look for him as a strong possibility as the Habs' pick in the first round. If he is available and they should pass on him, however, we'll know for certain that he was well evaluated and it was on good information that they opted for somebody else.

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.