Five days ago, the Montreal Canadiens signed defenseman Alexei Emelin to a four year contract extension worth $4.1million per year.
Supposedly on his return from injury shortly, just how big a gamble is this move by the Habs and what can we expect from the 27-year-old, 6ft 2 Russian.
Let’s start with a little background information about Emelin. He was selected as the 84th overall pick as a third round pick in the 2004 NHL entry draft. He began his career playing in the Russian 3rd division playing for Lada Togliatti 2 where he played for a season and two games. After that he moved to CSK VVS Samara in the Russian 2nd division, where he managed 6 points in 52 games and amassed 180 penalty minutes.
He then broke into the Russian first division with Lada Togliatti where he played for three seasons between 2004 and 2007, the highlight being the middle season in which he managed 12 points in his 44 games.
At the beginning of the 2007-2008 season, Emelin moved to AK Bars Kazan of the Russian KHL. He impressed very much in his final season (2010-11), netting twenty-seven points including eleven goals and only ninety-two penalty minutes through fifty-two games. This was a sharp increase in offensive production and a decrease in the rate at which he takes penalties, and the Canadiens noticed this.
Alexei was called up to the Canadiens at the start of the 2011-12 season. He played 67 games that season, scoring four goals, netting three assists with only 30 penalty minutes. The real let down statistically that season for Emelin was his -18 rating on the +/-. Some would argue however that the fact we finished last in the conference during that season has something to do with it.
Emelin came back for the 2012-13 season but managed only 38 games for the Canadiens after signing a two year contract before the season started. He did however get 9 assists, but his 33 penalty minutes showed a sharp increase in rate over the previous season. He returned to Russia to play for AK Bars Kazan, bagging nine points in twenty-four games.
And that brings us up to now and the 2013 season. Emelin has just inked a new deal, and the Habs mystery defenseman is coming back from injury as I type this. Many people have said already this season that we have missed Emelin’s defensive presence on the ice and what he brings to the team in terms of a skillset.
I am one of those people.
For me, it is his presence that we have missed so far this season, as his highlight-reel hits have struck fear into many opponents.
If we’re being honest; Emelin is an enforcer who is brilliant at the physical side of hockey. A hard-hitter and willing fighter, Alexei has earned a bit of a reputation as a gritty, grinding sort of defenseman throughout his career. His rise in offensive production as his career has progressed has been very encouraging. He is also very mobile and an adequate skater for his size, which allows him to excel in the open-ice body checks.
It is important though that I also address his flaws. Personally, I feel his biggest let down is his lack of consistency from game to game and the fact that he can look uninspired one day and completely up for it the next. Another side of his game which needs work are his turnovers. Emelin is a fairly apt passer of the puck, but can be a bit of a hothead when it comes to decision making on the puck, rather than the calm and collected puck-carrier some expected.
Let’s get down to business. Was it a good move to extend his contract?
The answer right now: nobody really knows.
It’s a bland, un-opinionated and frank response to the question I have been building up to, but there are reasons for this.
In my opinion, what he brings to the team is very important. As I keep repeating, his physical presence is crucial as far as establishing dominance on the boards and checking. He also fulfils the enforcer role, and if one of our players is wronged you can expect him to willingly drop his gloves and tangle an opponent, and being the tough Russian that he is he rarely loses.
That doesn’t hide the fact that his contract extension is a risk. He is no longer the young prospect that he once was. At 27 years old you’d be forgiven for thinking that his skills have reached a plateau that he will likely stay at before he begins regressing. If he eradicates some of his mistakes in regards to turnovers and unnecessary penalties then he will be a better player for it, but ultimately what other advances can he make?
Injuries are obviously another concern. He is just returning from a long-term one now, and has had others throughout his playing career. If he is to become a defensive mainstay on the third line pairing then he has to establish a run of games with consistent performance.
The bottom line is that I really like Emelin.
Is his contract extension a risk? Yes.
Is it a risk worth taking? Time will tell.
Oliver is a young Habs fan the United Kingdom. He fell in love with the Habs when he got his first hockey jersey in 2007 which donned the famous ‘CH’, and has been a fan ever since. Hasn’t yet had the fortune of making it out to the Bell Centre, but will definitely one day.
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