The corner of the internet dedicated to, and dominated by Habs fans exploded yesterday afternoon when Hockey Inside/Out released this picture of Alexei Yemelin reporting for training camp. After the initial rush of criticism, a few people leaped to poor Alexei's defense, saying it wasn't that bad and people have different body types. There's also the stone throwing in glass houses issue, as let's face it, most sports fans aren't exactly Max Pacioretty in the fitness department. But this clouds the issue at hand.
I'm a big fan of Yemelin's talent and think his game is something the Habs are sorely lacking. He's a physical force, and let's face it, he's a dirty player who's not afraid to lay a cheap shot on the opposition from time to time. He's the kind of player you despise on other teams but love on yours, especially when they're also effective and skilled players in their own right, which Yemelin is.
But coming to camp like this is a blemish on a player that a lot of people were excited about, even though most people don't know much about him, and it's not because he's out of shape. In all likelihood Yemelin is just as strong under his fairly thin layer of fat as he would be without it, and his conditioning is probably okay, because there's a lot of skating in the KHL. But the issue here isn't about the physical, as much as the reaction from fans and the photo suggest, but the mental.
In today's NHL coming into camp out of shape is simply not accepted. Last season Ian Schultz was the only healthy Habs player or prospect who didn't get to play in a preseason game, even though he played well in the scrimmages. The issue was that he was out of shape so Jacques Martin showed him the consequences of his (lack of) actions.
A different approach is more than likely with Yemelin because, let's face it, he's a special case (not to mention he's significantly more talented than Schultz). It's taken the Canadiens 7 years to bring Yemelin over from Russia, and he has an out clause in his contract if he's sent to the AHL, so he will be handled with kid gloves. The team also believes he's a top 4 defenseman so losing him is not an option, especially with Andrei Markov questionable for the start of the season.
Due to these factors, I have to say that for once I am in agreement with the reactionary sector of Habs fandom, at least insofar as they have a right to be upset here. Coming into camp like this, when Yemelin knows he has a semi-special status for a rookie, doesn't tell fans he has bad conditioning habits or eats too many Doritos, no one cares about that, it tells fans he doesn't care. Whether that's true or not is irrelevant to most people because that's the narrative they latch onto.
This is Yemelin's first NHL camp, and in spite of his contract status he's not guaranteed a spot on the team. He should be coming in fit and ready to blow the coaching staff away from day one. The fear is that his physical condition is a result of a mindset that is antithetical to this current addition of hard working Habs led by the 5'7" but ripped captain Brian Gionta.
I don't necessarily think that the situation is as dire as Yemelin being a problem from day 1, it could be that the picture makes the situation look worse than it is, and he can still blow us away with great play, because he is a talent. However the media microscope is on him now, and in Montreal that's just a bad way to start a career.