Alexei Emelin has become a whipping post of sorts for the Canadiens. He was signed to a pretty healthy contract before playing a single game following his severe knee injury, had a couple of rough years, and was an easy target for warranted criticism.
It's not that anyone has a personal issue with him. Who doesn't love a solid bone-crushing hit? Who of us could honestly say that we have a problem with a player who drives Milan Lucic to the brink of insanity?
The fact of the matter is that there have been legitimate deficiencies in his game, and the numbers were never very good.
But things can change. In 2015-16, Emelin was actually quite good.
Obviously the Canadiens didn't have much success, but for Emelin it was easily his best year since that knee injury. In fact, there is a legitimate argument that it was his best season ever in Montreal. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come, and he can really live up to his price tag.
It didn't come easily to him either. Thanks to all of the injury problems the Canadiens had, Emelin was pushed up to 20.7 minutes per game on average - a career high. Emelin spent most of his time playing alongside Jeff Petry, and they were very good together.
The thing about Emelin is that he needs to be paired with a highly mobile partner in order to succeed. With Petry, he had exactly that, and it paid off. They posted an admirable 54.3% Corsi For at even strength, while starting only 29% of their shifts in the offensive zone. It's a solid second pairing for the Habs, and they could elect to try that again next year.
There is an argument to be made that perhaps Petry carried them to the numbers that they enjoyed, but Emelin's individual numbers were also quite good. At even strength, he managed a 51.8% Corsi For, so he kept his head above water even when he wasn't playing with Petry.
When on the ice - again at even strength - the Canadiens controlled 49.9% of scoring chances, and 50.9% of high-danger chances. He's not a noted offensive player, having collected only 12 assists and no goals last year.
And he did all of this with a number of different partners throughout the year. Aside from Petry, he played with Andrei Markov, Greg Pateryn, Mark Barberio, Tom Gilbert, and Nathan Beaulieu. Basically everyone not named P.K. Subban.
He isn't really expected to score much, his career high is three goals in a season, but he had some woeful luck in that department. He put 71 shots on goal throughout the year - 61 at even strength - but not one made it's way into the net. His average shooting percentage prior to this season was 5.95%, so that 0% definitely represents some lack of fortune.
His goals for percentage is the only thing that leaves much to be desired, clocking 42% at even-strength. By all other metrics he was great defensively, it is in the generation of scoring plays that he struggles mightily. There may just be a remedy to that problem, though.
His success, or lack thereof, hinges on his usage. They can keep him with Petry on the second pair, because there they have a partner that he has already played a lot of minutes with, and their numbers are solid. But there is another option that could be even better.
Over a small sample, just over 70 minutes together, Emelin and Mark Barberio posted some ridiculous numbers. With an even strength Corsi for of 60.6%, shots for of 58.6%, goals for of 80%, and starting only 34% of their shifts in the offensive zone, they were lights out.
Obviously it's a very small sample, but it's definitely worth exploring in greater detail. Barberio appears to have earned his spot with the Canadiens, so if you put him with Emelin as a third pairing, they could really thrive. It also helps elsewhere on the blueline as well.
It would allow Nathan Beaulieu to play with Petry, and those two are astonishing together. This gives you a defensive lineup that could be extremely good next season. Worst case scenario, the Barberio-Emelin numbers turn out to be nothing more than the product of a small sample, and then you re-evaluate.
If the numbers are any indication, it seems that he may have really turned a corner, although it remains to be seen whether or not he can maintain a respectable level of play over the course of two seasons. If he does continue his above-replacement level results, he may even become a valuable trade asset for the team moving forward.