Alexei Emelin was the prospect that teased the Habs for years. It took seven years from his drafting in the third round of the 2004 Entry Draft to get him under contract. In that time frame, all of the other notable picks by the Canadiens from that year had moved on. Kyle Chipchura, drafted in the first round, topped out as a fourth line centre and was traded in the 2009-10 season. Replacement level checking winger J.T. Wyman was let go by the organization as a free agent that same summer of 2011, and signed with Tampa Bay. Top two line centre Mikhail Grabovski was traded at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Gregory Stewart was not tendered a qualifying offer by the Canadiens that summer. Mark Streit left for a lucrative UFA deal with the New York Islanders in 2008. It'd been a long wait for Emelin to finally come over.
There was real excitement with his arrival. He had played on the Russian national team multiple times and been a KHL All-Star. He was known to have both a strong physical game as well as an offensive upside. Unfortunately, through three years, his game hasn't really panned out with the Canadiens despite playing a prominent role on a good team.
And there are excuses that fans are making for this. He missed a lot of time due to a torn ligament in his left knee, suffered on a hit by *spits* Milan Lucic in April 2013. The injury coincided with a tough run for the Habs to end the year, eventually resulting in a first round exit to the inferior Ottawa Senators. The recovery caused him to miss significant time with the Canadiens to start the 2013-14 season, only to return in November shortly after signing a four year contract extension for $16.4 million. So he missed a lot of time and maybe needed some recovery time, which is fair, but we've seen other defensemen miss significant time from knee injuries and return as effective defenders before... Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov are both still quality defencemen after their injuries.
The other common excuse for his struggles has been that he's playing the wrong side, that he's a natural left side defender. This actually isn't even accurate: in the KHL, he frequently patrolled the right side and he only broke into the NHL on the left side before Therrien shifted him back to play with Andrei Markov. I kind of think that playing different sides is a bit overstated, and this was a point of contention with P.K. Subban's deployment on the Canadian Olympic team over a much inferior left side defender in Jay Bouwmeester.
There's also no evidence in his NHL career that he performs better on the left side. The following is his ZACC (Zone Adjusted Corsi Close%) with various defence partners in his three year career (courtesy of Hockey Analysis):
|Defence Partner||Emelin's Position||TOI Together||ZACC With Emelin||ZACC Without Emelin|
|Andrei Markov||Right Defence||630:29||47.1%||53.2%|
|Josh Gorges||Right Defence||191:31||44.3%||49.2%|
|Raphael Diaz||Left Defence||164:47||42.1%||51.1%|
|Tomas Kaberle||Right Defence||106:29||42.9%||46.1%|
|Yannick Weber||Left Defence||87:50||36.6%||47.7%|
|P.K. Subban||Left Defence||44:16||42.6%||51.8%|
A couple of notes here: Andrei Markov spent most of his time in the 'without Emelin' part paired with P.K. Subban, so that accounts for the huge number there. Josh Gorges spent most of his time without Emelin with Subban and Diaz. Diaz spent no time with P.K. Subban. Yannick Weber's numbers probably include some time with him as a forward, so they're a bit muddy, while I only put the Emelin-Subban pairing numbers on here for show, the TOI together isn't that significant.
In general, Emelin has had his best moments playing on the right side with Markov and to a lesser extent Josh Gorges. It's not been pretty in general over three seasons. I suspect a lot of the 'Emelin is good on his left side' comes form the very small sample that was his 'without Markov' portion during the short 2013 season, when he had all of 52 minutes of ZACC time without Markov as his partner and posted a 53.2% ZACC. That's not a very large sample, and the fact is the Habs as a whole were a lot stronger of a possession team that year. I'd wager the team's performance as a whole was the real story there. The fact remains, over three years, everyone does better when not paired with Emelin.
So this is all fine and good, but what about the forwards he's playing with? If Emelin is matched up against the opposition's top forwards all the time, we'd expect he's out there with guys like Plekanec and Gionta a lot and it could be the opposition that influences this. So let's check out the forwards he has 100 minutes or more with of ZACC time:
|Forward||TOI Together||ZACC With Emelin||ZACC Without Emelin|
Well, it took a while, but we found one: Alex Galchenyuk has put up a better Corsi Close% with Emelin on the ice than without him there. Everyone else on the team? Nope.
More time backing up the kids of Gallagher and Galchenyuk would likely help Emelin's Corsi a bit, but Tomas Plekanec, who is hard matched against opposition's top lines, does better without Emelin helping him out in that role. And Emelin still spends a lot of his icetime with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, and he drags them down. And when Emelin is out there with the lower parts of the roster that need some sheltering, like Rene Bourque, Brandon Prust or Ryan White, the Habs are getting hemmed in their own zone to a significant level.
I can't split up the forward ZACC by what side of the ice Emelin plays, but I can't see anything here that suggests Emelin is good on one side and terrible on the other: the evidence points to him being an ineffective NHLer that makes it much harder for the Canadiens to win.
Alexei Emelin has a No Trade Clause on his new contract that kicks in July 1st for two full seasons. Marc Bergevin would be best served to trade him at the draft this weekend if he can and use that $4.1m somewhere else. If you're worried about the blueline becoming too soft, don't fear too much. Jarred Tinordi looks pretty ready for the NHL, is 6'7" and can play both sides of the ice if need be. There are options available in free agency as well to fill a top 4 spot, with guys that predominantly play the right side as well in Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman, Tom Gilbert and Mark Fayne. All of these guys have strong positive Relative Corsi ratings and some might come in at that $4.1m range or less. And even if they cost more, the benefit would definitely be worth it.