MONTREAL – After entering the NHL as a Russian wrecking ball, Alexei Emelin has upped his game, adding a measure of polish to his power.
Rapidly approaching his 100th game in the league, the rugged rearguard spent his first season in the NHL establishing his game, spending the odd match watching from the pressbox rather than playing alongside All-Star fellow countryman, Andrei Markov. A year later and Emelin has solidified himself as a pillar of the Canadiens’ blue line, often relied upon to play upwards of 20 minutes per game.
“He’s really matured since he started here last year. He knows when it’s the right moment to throw that huge check,” explained Josh Gorges, on the subject of the 26-year-old Togliatti native. “He also knows when it’s time to limit chances and contain our opponents. He’s shown his ability to go up against the other teams’ best lines game after game and he’s been doing great work to keep them from scoring.”
Not only has Emelin been showcasing his skills in the defensive zone, posting a plus-4 differential so far this season in comparison to his minus-18 from last year, but he’s also shown the ability to provide some offensive firepower as suggested by his recent numbers. In only 25 games this season, Emelin has already eclipsed his point total from 2011-12, when he logged seven points in 67 games.
“The guy is an extremely intelligent player. He cycles the puck well and he’s got a good shot. It’s tough for a defenseman to pick up points in 5-on-5 situations, but he has a knack for getting pucks through to the net,” continued Gorges, who’s also known for his smarts in the offensive zone. “A lot of his assists lately are coming from making solid plays in the neutral zone that allow the forwards to go on a good rush and score.”
With only eight Russian defensemen in the NHL, the bonus of having both Andrei Markov and Emelin patrolling the blue line together is something few other teams can boast. Playing a position where communication is often the key to success, the Markov-Emelin pairing creates a distinct advantage for both players.
“It helps. They’re able to communicate easily with one another,” said Gorges, adding that language isn’t the only thing that both players have in common. “We all know that he’s physically very strong, but I think people forget that he’s got great hands too. He handles the puck really well and it compliments Marky perfectly since he’s one of the best defensemen in the league at moving the puck. It’s a huge help.”
Having only had the chance to watch Emelin’s exploits on TV last season, Canadiens’ head coach Michel Therrien is more than satisfied with the young rearguard’s progress and skillset that he’s becoming more and more familiar with each day.
“It’s his second NHL season. He’s playing with more maturity. It’s similar to what’s happening with [Raphael] Diaz. Those guys will just continue getting better every year,” explained Therrien, who admits to enjoying the occasional well-timed bodycheck. “We’re encouraging him to keep playing that rugged style of hockey. He’s not a dirty player; his hits are clean but hard.”
Emelin currently sits second in hits among all NHL defensemen, behind only Luke Schenn. He’s also one of the least-penalized players on the Habs roster, racking up just four minor penalties so far this season.
As the little things continue to add up – a devastating hit here, a shot blocked or assist there – Canadiens fans will keep discovering just how many weapons Emelin has in his growing arsenal.
Vincent Cauchy is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Justin Fragapane.
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