It wasn’t so long ago that Alexei Emelin had a greater chance of ending up on another team’s roster than playing a prominent role on the Montreal Canadiens’ defense. Through the first couple months of the season, Emelin has evolved his game in a bid to stay relevant in the National Hockey League. So far for the Russian blueliner, it’s going better than anyone expected.
After the 2015-16 season, many people thought Emelin was on his way out of town in the summer. Little did anyone know a much more prominent defenseman, P.K. Subban, would be shipped out. So it’s safe to say that when this season rolled around, there isn’t anyone that expected Shea Weber and Alexei Emelin would be the top pair in Montreal.
It’s now mid-November and the Habs sit at 13-2-2 and in first place in the Eastern Conference after 17 games. As much as scoring and the play of Carey Price has attributed to the record so far, the play of the revamped defense core has improved from last season and Emelin is a big part of that.
So how did he get here? What changed in his game? Let’s talk about it.
The 2016 Offseason
After a disappointing 2015-16 season for Emelin and the Canadiens, there was no telling what could happen in the offseason. The team needed a shake-up and changes were surely coming.
Other than improving their scoring, the Canadiens knew they needed to shore up the defense. Because of this, many thought that Emelin, who hadn’t scored all season and posted a disappointing 12 points in 72 games, would surely be out the door. Instead, the Canadiens chose to bring in more power and strength in Weber rather than going the offensive defenceman route. They wanted to change the identity of the team, and internally they felt that keeping a player like Emelin could be beneficial.
The talk of trading Emelin never truly died down throughout the offseason. Although they felt that they could keep him, they realized that there could be other players out there that would give them a better value at $4.2 million a season.
Despite all the talk, Emelin took the trade rumors as motivation. At the World Cup, he discussed how he trained in Florida with Alex Galchenyuk and how he was in the best shape of his life going into the new season. He felt he was a different player and was eager to show the Canadiens what he could do.
Early 2016-17 Season
The Canadiens are enjoying a historic start to their season, much like the beginning of last year. What’s different from last year is they have a healthy Carey Price and a new identity. Players like Galchenyuk, Torrey Mitchell, and Paul Byron are examples of how the Habs have grown. Perhaps the best example, however, is the evolution of Emelin.
He’s gone from a one-dimensional player to a complete defenseman. He’s not just out there “banging bodies” anymore, he’s playing a much sounder defensive game with more offense as he went the entire 2015-16 season without a goal and finally buried one in October of this year.
Emelin is enjoying a time on ice average of 21:08 per game which is a career high and is still getting it done in the hit department with 55. That shows with an increased role, he’s improving his game. In some cases when a player receives added responsibility, it’s too much for him. Fortunately and surprisingly for a lot of people, so far with Emelin that isn’t the case.
There’s no telling if Emelin can actually keep up at this level for the entire season. He’s now playing against top-level competition night in and night out with an increased workload. However, if he can give the Canadiens even 75% of this effort through the rest of the year, then it would be a huge improvement over last season.
The bottom line is Emelin has earned the playing time he’s been receiving and he’s shown the Canadiens he can do much more than throw the body around.
Emelin has made the Canadiens a better hockey team and has proved to the management team they made the right choice in keeping him. We don’t yet know if he’ll be able to play out the next years of his contract in Montreal with the expansion draft looming, but that’s a conversation for another day. For now Habs fans, enjoy Emelin 2.0.
Nick Guido is a Montreal Canadiens Contributor for The Hockey Writers. You can Follow him on Twitter @nickguidoTHW for his articles, opinions and general Habs talk.