All Habs is also proud to provide a platform for young guest writers to express their views on important issues. Today, we present a piece from a contributor about contribution of Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin and the decisions ahead for Habs GM Marc Bergevin.
by Blake Bennett, Guest Contributor, All Habs Hockey Magazine
TORONTO, ON. — Montreal’s struggles to gain decisive leads and hold them are what prevented them from getting past the second round in these past playoffs. Four of their six wins this post-season were one-goal games. Conventional wisdom would point to the lack of offense and the struggling power-play as the culprits, but perhaps just as important is the role of the defensemen in maintaining a lead.
It’s clear from looking over the Corsi ratings of the defence corps that, when trailing by a goal, the Habs hunkered down and got to work getting even, with every defenseman having a positive rating when behind. But when the team was leading by a goal, they turtled in the defensive zone and struggled to press the advantage. This brings us to the curious case of Alexei Emelin. Does he still fit on this team, and is he really worth his $4.1 million dollar cap hit? While the Corsi trend holds across the whole blueline, the gap between the trailing and leading numbers for Montreal’s more skilled d-men is less dramatic: P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, and Nathan Beaulieu are the strongest in this regard. But Emelin’s leading Corsi is at a paltry 39.4 per cent. It’s clear that he struggles to contribute in moving the puck well out of his zone under pressure.
You might be tempted to think that because Emelin’s role isn’t that of a puck-mover that this isn’t an accurate measurement of his contribution to the team. And, to be fair, the Russian Wrecking Ball threw 219 hits over the course of the year, his highest single-season (playoffs included) total since his league debut in 2011-2012 when he had 212—but that season he only played 67 games compared to 80 this season (again, playoffs included.) Further complicating this stat is that he was on the receiving end of a hit 167 times this season; in 2013-14 it was 207 hits given to 122 received, and in 2011-12 the spread was only 212-98.
This means that the first year he played for the Habs, no one expected him to step up and hit like he did. So three seasons after his inaugural campaign, he’s no longer surprising anyone, and the 720 regular-season hits he’s racked up have plainly painted a target on his sweater. His purpose and upside can therefore be chalked up to the ever-infuriating label of “intangibles”; here meaning that opposing forwards (supposedly) play more cautiously when they know he’s waiting for them at the blue line to lay out punishment. But if this physical play results in retaliatory checking and ups the ante as far as hitting is concerned, then what he’s doing is not so much adding physicality to a skilled Habs team, but changing the tone of the game to one that the rest of the team is ill-suited for.
Which wouldn’t be a huge problem, except Emelin can’t seem to take it like he dishes it out. You only need watch the giant hit Stamkos laid on him in game 5 of the playoffs (by giant hit, I mean Emelin skated his head directly into Stammer’s shoulder) to see the issue. Here’s a guy who can change the emotion of a game with a single crunching hit, but who doesn’t hold up well to the physicality he creates when it comes back around on him. Returning to his growing number of hits-against, this is a trend that will probably worsen as time goes on.
If we turn our attention to the team’s number-one defenceman, we can see that the big hit, while good for stoking the fire of the Bell Centre, is ultimately an emotional victory and not a strategic one. When P.K. Subban first entered the league, a viewer could expect several occasions per night when he lined up a likely forward (most satisfyingly Brad Marchand) with some backwards scissor-skating and laid them out with his back. Of those several attempts, one or two might have really connected and separated that player from the puck and his breath.
But that was early-days Subban: Norris Trophy winner and perennial nominee Subban has dialed that switch back by several notches. He’s become an elite defender by playing the strongest puck-possession game on the team. The signature Subie-doobie-doo move is no longer the backskating bodycheck or even his one-timer bomb from the point; it’s his immensely powerful one-handed, puck-protecting, stiff-arming, attention-drawing cycles in the neutral and offensive zones. But Emelin is still the one-trick pony of lining up the poor schmuck crossing the blue line with his head down. Calling him a shutdown defender is generous, because past zone entry, Emelin’s ability drops off. His hits seem to require the opponent to be in full momentum, and while he doesn’t tend to sacrifice positioning to lay the hit, it’s rare that the puck doesn’t continue deeper into the Habs’ end for the next opposing forward to snatch up. Montreal’s obvious need over the summer is to bolster the offence, and that has to start from the back end.
But if it is a shutdown defender the Habs are looking for, Jarred Tinordi has to be given more of a shot than he was last season. Despite his unimpressive -5 rating over the 13-game stint he received, Tinordi’s Corsi numbers were stronger than Emelin’s, especially his 62.5 per cent when trailing by one (Emelin was at 55 per cent.) When leading by one or more, Tinordi, like the rest of the defensive corps, had a weaker Corsi rating, but one that was more in line with the better elements on the blue line like Subban, Markov, and Beaulieu than with Emelin or Gilbert. Tinordi has the stature and reach to play an effective net-area low-momentum shutdown game: he has the height and weight leverage to take down stronger forwards parked in front of the net, and his larger frame gives him a natural advantage at shot-blocking.
With the deepest draft in years coming up and Montreal’s first selection slated at 26th overall, and then not again until late in the third round at 87th, it seems plausible that Emelin could be moved to pick up a second-round pick. With Jeff Petry’s hefty new contract on the books and Alex Galchenyuk and Jarred Tinordi as RFA’s needing to be signed, Emelin’s $4.1 million cap hit should be moved to make room both towards the cap and on the depth chart. Tinordi or Greg Pateryn are both waiting in the wings and are equally, if not more skilled and far more affordable. If Montreal wants to improve their offence and stop leaning so heavily on Price, they have to start holding onto their leads by increasing them, and not by collapsing around the net and watching Price save their hides. And that will have to start with the worst offender, number 74.
~All stats courtesy of waronice.com~