Great news for Habs fans this week, as a deal has been reached between the Canadiens and Alexei Yemelin who was drafted in 2004, and finally has agreed to play for the Canadiens. Yemelin signed a one year deal that will pay him the maximum allowable rookie contract ($984,000) with no bonuses. This is important because if the Canadiens had added performance bonuses, Yemelin may have been able to earn north of $2.8M, all of which would have counted against the Habs’ cap.
While much is left to be discovered about the 6’2 220 pound Russian, there are a few things that are definitely known about his abilities. First, you’re unlikely to ever find a “rookie” that is this developed in his first year with an NHL club. At 25 Yemelin is a veteran of the KHL and international competition, and brings FAR more experience than say a Yannik Weber or PK Subban did this past season. He still has plenty to prove, and yet I cannot help but feel he is the perfect type of player to bring into the Habs organization at this time.
The reason I feel this way is because I feel it is incredibly important for an organization to have defensive balance. Too many offensive defenseman and you’ll be porous on the back end. Too many stay at home guys and you’ll struggle to move the puck. Right now the Habs are heavy on skilled defensemen (Markov, Subban, Wisniewski, Weber, Spacek) and light on stay-at-home guys (Gill, Gorges, Hamrlik). The addition of Alexei Yemelin is a huge boost to the Habs ability to clear the front of the net. Yemelin is a great mid-sized, tough defender who has surprisingly good skating and passing ability. While he’ll be able to crash and bang in front of the net, he’ll also support the breakout very well, with the ability to add some offense at the other end of the ice.
His signing makes Pierre Gauthier’s job much easier this off season. As long as the GM focuses on filling needs, the Canadiens should have a defense that is tougher to play against next season. PK Subban will be a year older and stronger. Josh Gorges is a known warrior. While people often lament the loss of Markov for the offense and powerplay, they forget that he was most often our best defender as well, playing 25+ minutes almost every game. If you thought that Habs fans lamented the loss of Dominic Moore after watching his playoff performance with the Lightning this season, watch and cry if Markov lands elsewhere. There is no way the Canadiens can afford to lose him. Knowing this, you can assume the Habs top 4 might include:
Markov – Yemelin
Subban – Gorges
I know its a stretch to think that Yemelin will be capable of jumping into a top 2 position – but because Markov will be his partner, I think it makes the most sense to try him in that position to start the year. Josh Gorges would be the perfect partner for PK Subban. PK doesn’t need to play next to an overly physical guy, but he does need someone who will cover up for his rushes should he cause a turnover when joining the rush. Gorges is mobile and offensively capable enough to support PK in a way that Hal Gill simply cannot. That brings us to the bottom pairing.
I like the idea of playing Yannik Weber next to Hal Gill. For one, Gill’s resume with Josh Gorges and PK Subban speaks for itself. Weber is small for defense, but if he can learn what both PK and Gorges learned form Gill, I believe that he can be an effective defender. He needs to learn how to use an active stick and superior positioning to block shots and passes and to break up rushes. If he can be effective next to Gill, Weber could save Pierre Gauthier a lot of money (especially given we’re stuck with Jaroslav Spacek’s contract for next season).
Gill should be reasonably easy to sign at the same number as last season, and will be put back into the place where he can be most effective – the bottom pairing. His lack of speed and age are less of an issue if he’s only playing 12 – 17 minutes per night. I envision that he’ll also play more than his partner and be paired with Gorges or PK when the Habs are killing penalties.
One final possibility for the bottom pairing is that Pierre Gauthier decides that he’d rather use Weber as a utility player (in the grain of Mathieu Dandenault) on offense, and playing defense only when injuries or powerplays dictate. If this is the case, Gauthier may need to look at the pool of available defenders on the UFA market. Roman Hamrlik is a possibility to fill a defensive spot although I struggle to see why the Habs should not be looking to get younger and stronger on the back end. Hamrlik is a serviceable defenseman, but if the Canadiens want to compete in the playoffs, they’ll desperately need to infuse younger blood into the defense. Our team need after Yemelin’s signing is a shut down guy with strength who will play conservatively on defense. I’m thinking a Shane O’Brien or Jan Hejda type player who will give a solid 16-20 minutes of unspectacular defense, but will be more of a physical threat than our aging Czechs. In this case the Canadiens could look more like:
Markov – Gorges
PK – O’Brien/Hejda
Yemelin – Gill
Personally, this is my preferable scenario (though admitedly the less likely). All of a sudden the Habs would go from a team that was easily pushed around to featuring 3 or 4 guys that would make opponents pay for going into corners or the front of the net.
Jaro Spacek’s contract determines in my view that he will be the Habs’ 7th defenseman. If the Canadiens are giving him top 6 minutes, they are in for trouble as is skills have diminished considerably since he was signed away from Buffalo two off-seasons ago. Unfortunately I also suspect that Roman Hamrlik will also move on, given that he can still be useful to team’s who need a veteran presence. The Habs however, need to find the proper compliment for their system. To me, Hamr isn’t that guy, given that the opportunity to upgrade exists.
You will have noticed by now that I have left out James Wisniewski. I love what James brings to the team but it is my personal belief that he has priced himself out of the Canadiens’ range. His skills would be very useful to the Canadiens and yet, because of his defensive troubles, he is not worth what some team will definitely pay him this offseason. Montreal will need to spend any additional cap space they have at forward.
It will be interesting to see what happens for the defense over the next couple months. Personally I think that the Habs need to rip the band aid quickly with regards to their older guys. Given that we already have the difficult positions on defense covered (skilled position), we need to add a tougher defender that will allow us to compete with the bigger team’s in our conference.