Alexei Emelin to return this weekend, but where does he play?

USA TODAY Sports

After seeing his doctor this morning, Emelin was announced fit to return to the lineup later in the week, most likely this weekend. But where does he play?

Alexei Emelin will be making his long awaited return sometime this weekend, which means that in all likelihood Douglas Murray will be pushed out of the lineup. The most obvious fit for Emelin is pure substitution, which would see him playing the right side with Francis Bouillon on the third pairing while he gets up to speed.

After a little bit of time however, things get a bit more interesting. I don't believe that Raphael Diaz is entrenched as a top-4 defenseman on this team, and Therrien certainly prefered Emelin over him last season. But to get Emelin on one of the top two defense pairings, does Therrien scramble everything and go back to last season's formation?

That would see the defense pairings looking as follows:

Defense pairings option 1
Left side Right side
Josh Gorges P.K. Subban
Andrei Markov Alexei Emelin
Francis Bouillon Raphael Diaz

I don't think that anyone would argue that this is a balanced defense corps. Each pairing has a puck mover, and each pairing has a physical presence. However it does scramble pairings that are currently working very well, in particular Subban and Markov.

It also puts Emelin back on the right side, which he became good at over time, but isn't an ideal spot for him. For $4.1M per season, you want the most you can get out of him, and I think breaking up Subban and Markov is a bit foolish considering how excellent they've been together, especially since those two are getting 24+ minutes a night together.

Josh Gorges can also play the right side, so it's possible that if Emelin struggles there, he could take over. That brings us a different look.

Defense pairings option 2
Left side Right side
Andrei Markov P.K. Subban
Alexei Emelin Josh Gorges
Francis Bouillon Raphael Diaz

Emelin remains on his natural side, and gives Gorges a physical break by attracting most of the punishment. Gorges can then use his solid stick work to grab loose pucks and clear the zone. These two have played together very infrequently, but I like the idea of this combination. To be honest, I think this is the most likely long term solution for this season.

Then there's the unlikely scenario that Gorges is the one pushed down the lineup. Perhaps Therrien prefers Diaz's puck moving ability with Emelin, and decides that Bouillon could use the defensive help of Gorges?

Defense pairings option 3
Left side Right side
Andrei Markov P.K. Subban
Alexei Emelin Raphael Diaz
Francis Bouillon Josh Gorges

This formation might have even more balance than the first option, because you have a better third pairing, and the additional puck moving Diaz provides with Emelin may end up being better than what Gorges brings there. Considering Bergevin's stated objection to heavily relying on one defense pairing (even if you think that's dumb, which I do), this seems to be something the coaching staff could try.

It's an interesting dynamic moving forward, and how great is it to see three defense pairings with no Murray?

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