Alexei Emelin began his season serving as on-ice mentor for the Canadiens’ prized addition from the 2016 NHL Draft: Mikhail Sergachev. Emelin played almost exclusively the rookie during his three-game audition in October.
Once Sergachev was relegated to the pressbox to spend the remainder of his NHL stint in an observer role, Emelin moved onto the top pairing with Shea Weber. The two spent the majority of the season playing together, being one of the NHL’s most stable duos with over 850 shared five-on-five minutes.
That pairing held together on the penalty kill as well, as they spent a further 160-plus minutes defending their zone while playing short-handed, being the unit sent out against the opposition’s first wave. The penalty-killing wasn’t particular good for the team, however, as the Habs sat in the league’s bottom 10 going into their bye week in mid-February. The switch from Michel Therrien to Claude Julien brought an improved short-handed system (and a much more disciplined approach) that propelled the team from 22nd to 14th in just 24 games. The Canadiens were the most efficient team on the man disadvantage in that time, at 88.9%, with Emelin still being one of the most-used players in that situation.
Emelin set a career high in games played, dressing for 76 of the Canadiens’ 82 games of the regular season. Unfortunately, two of the six games he missed were the final two before the playoffs began, sustaining a lower-body injury against the Buffalo Sabres on April 5. The injury kept him out of the lineup for Montreal’s first four playoff matches, only getting back in for games five and six. Shortly after the Habs had been eliminated, the team announced that he had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
He didn’t contribute quite as much offence in his new role as he had in previous seasons, but even playing a more defensive role he managed to score two goals and add eight assists. He also got the Canadiens on the board in a critical Game Six versus the New York Rangers, scoring what turned out to be the team’s only goal in the contest.
With few offensive-zone starts, Emelin posted a shot-attempts-for percentage of 50.8%. and the Canadiens had 52.7% of the scoring chances while he was on the ice.
Those numbers began to drop late in the season when he was partnered with Jeff Petry soon after Julien took over. A few missed reads and some ill-advised hits that took him out of position often left Petry defending a two-on-one. Though the team saw a boost in what was already fairly strong puck-control numbers, the Emelin-Petry duo just broke even in scoring-chance differential
In the playoffs, those numbers fell, being under 50% in Corsi-for percentage and allowing almost four scoring chances to every one Montreal had. Jumping into a playoff series five games in didn’t help in that area, and an injury that required surgery immediately after the post-season was likely limiting his impact.
Coming off his last knee injury, Emelin struggled to get back to his top form. However, he did eventually regain some of his speed and had a good year in 2015-16. His time spent with Weber for the majority of this season was good as well. The question is how this latest injury will affect his performance, and how long he will need to get back to 100%.
The 2017-18 season is the last on what was a four-year contract extension. Given the remaining term of the deal and the cap space allotted to him for the season ($4.1 million) the Canadiens will likely leave Emelin exposed for the upcoming expansion draft. With the recent signing of Vadim Shipachyov, the Vegas Golden Knights have shown they’re willing to add some veterans for their inaugural season, and not just go with a group of young prospects, so Emelin’s experience and skill set may be of interest to the NHL’s newest franchise. The questions about his injury will play heavily into those considerations as well.
If he’s healthy, Emelin can still provide quality minutes for the Canadiens, even though he has a penchant for head-scratching decisions from time to time. Based on Julien’s pairings, it doesn’t appear that that future will be alongside Weber on the top pairing.
The left side of the defence is perhaps the biggest unknown this off-season, with Emelin’s health status, Markov currently headed for unrestricted free agency, and Nathan Beaulieu under pressure after underachieving this year. The Canadiens recently signed the left-handed, puck-moving blue-liner Jakub Jerabek, suggesting the team is being proactive to cover the potential loss of one of those players. Whether the odd man out turns out to be Emelin, Beaulieu, or Markov, or if one of those players actually does suit up for another team next season remains to be seen.
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