Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Say Emelin, You Say Yemelin:

Gauthier Wise Not To Call The Whole Thing Off

Alex, Alexei. Emelin, Yemelin. Whatever you want to call this guy, only one name really now matters: Canadiens defenceman.

In what proved to be a very worthwhile trip to the land of Pilsener and dumplings, Pierre Gauthier has come away with what will be, if not the, one of the prized signings of the summer for the Habs.

I say prized signing because it's a game changer, a depth chart changer. When he looked down the barrel of defensive injuries this season, Gauthier came up with Wisniewski, Sopel, Mara. All were good recovery shots, but recovery shots they were. Subban was here, Weber was basically here, O'Byrne was gone. Gauthier had left himself exposed to Brendon Nash call ups.

In Slovakia, Gauthier has gone some way to remedy that. First Swiss D-man Diaz, and now Alexei Emelin (we never boarded the Kastitsyn train, we're not boarding the Yemelin one either). The potential depth chart now looks more safe, and with more protection for true up and comers Subban and Weber.

The Alexei Emelin signing is particularly exciting. Most reports will tell you that he had a banner offensive year for his team AK Bars Kazan this season. Most reports are missing the point. He's not been an offensive defenceman in his career, he's not likely going to morph into one in Montreal. This guy is a competitor, this guy is a winner.

Winning pedigree

Alexei came up the ranks with his local club, Lada Togliatti in the inland Russian town Togliatti on the Volga. There he learned how to play and how to win, lessons he carried with him to AK Bars Kazan. Together with his 27 points, Emelin has quite a cabinet full of medals and trophies:

2 Gagrin Cups
1 WJC Gold, 1 WJC Silver
1 WC Silver, 1 WC Bronze
2 Continental Cups

Think this insignificant? Gauthier and Gainey don't. Their recent rebuild sought players just like this guy, and though this record is peppered with unfamiliar and oft-discounted trophies instead of Memorial Cups and Stanley Cups, it still shows Emelin was on teams that won.

This is important for a defenceman. Defence, after all is where a team record can truly be solidified (or taken apart). In playoff time, we can all see tangible evidence of this (maybe not last night). A team that can commit to playing defence, being patient, "playing the system" that is designed for its component strengths can win. Emelin seems to know this stuff, at least by the evidence.

Fear factor

As you know, I don't like a dirty player. And there certainly is the fear that Emelin may be one. However, I am also prone to lament a team that provides nothing for opposing forwards to think about.

I would be very happy if Alexei Emelin never meets Colin Campbell or Gary Bettman until the time of the Stanley Cup presentation. But in reining in his aggression, I hope the Canadiens allow him to throw plenty of legal and timely body checks.

From what we have seen, from what we've heard, Emelin is a player one pays attention to when he's on the ice. Though I don't like the idea of intimidation, I must recognise that the Habs aren't winning while teams that subscribe to the intimidation methods are still alive. It's a common theme in the media that the Habs lack size. but in reality, if Emelin replaced Gill, the change in personnel would bring less size, but more "size", or what the pundits can't express in other words. Emelin offers that player that can strike a bit of fear and more importantly hesitation into opponents. Paired with someone like Markov or Subban, the space and time his reputation alone might free is worth the price of the contract alone.

25 years old

The bonus in this story is that Emelin is only 25 years old (just 25, actually). He's done all this, played 7 years at the highest levels of Russian hockey (with a 4-year tenure on the Russian squad) in his defensive youth.

This baptism by championships is a development coup. While the Bulldogs have been a decent team to be around on and off for the past few years, it's hard to see how Emelin would have received the benefits of Russian call-ups and professional mentorship the likes that he has received.

This is not to say there won't be bumps in the road as he adjust to the North American style. I think most would anticipate a long adjustment period. Maybe more than a one-year contract.

But a winner will find a way.

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