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2017-18 Player Reviews: Alexei Emelin

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Emelin was acquired this offseason to replace Ryan Ellis. How did he do?

NHL: Nashville Predators at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

David Poile might have traded for Alexei Emelin to replace Ryan Ellis until Ellis returned from offseason surgery, or he might have traded for Alexei Emelin because he’s determined to acquire the complete set of 2011-13 Canadiens defensemen. Either way, last summer George McPhee got next year’s third-round pick, and Poile got Emelin.

Somewhat oddly, the Golden Knights retained salary on Emelin, who is a UFA this summer. With Ellis back, Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber extended, and several young defensemen in Milwaukee hopefully deserving of a longer look, we’re not likely to see Emelin again in September.

Season Overview

Emelin is generally considered a more defensive defenseman, his physical play and, well, not much else. Although he was signed to “replace” Ellis, Emelin spent the first half of this season not with fellow lefty Roman Josi, but with former Canadiens teammate P.K. Subban. Then Ellis returned, and Emelin... continued to play with Subban.

A chart showing that 53 of Emelin’s 76 games this regular season were played almost entirely with Subban, with another 2 were played half with Subban. 17 of the full games plus the two half-games were after Ellis’s return.
Alexei Emelin shared icetime by game
Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com

While he saw more time with Yannick Weber than he had before Ellis came back, Emelin still played almost half of his games in the second half of this season with Subban. Why? Frankly, I suspect that a lot of the problem is that Emelin just isn’t very good. He’s probably an adequate third-pairing defenseman, but he was used as a reliable top-four shutdown player in Montréal, and, when playing with Subban, the pairing’s on-ice results looked like they could be fairly decent. To get the most out of Emelin, they had to attach him to Subban.

Emelin himself, though, doesn’t stand out among the Nashville Predators’ defensemen in any good way. I looked at Corey Sznajder’s tracked data, and in the quarter of a season’s worth of games available, Emelin has been pretty much a nonentity. He struggled more than any other Preds defenseman at both bluelines, letting the puck into the defensive zone more often and getting it into the offensive zone with possession (i.e. not just dumping it in) less often than anyone else.

Defensemen ranked from greatest share of controlled zone entries by opponents successfully thwarted: Subban, Weber, Irwin, Ekholm, Josi, Bitetto, Emelin. Defensemen ranked from greatest share of controlled zone entries successfully made for their own team
Entry defense (left) and entry creation (right) for the Predators’ defensemen in 17-18.
Data from Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine. Viz by CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil.

We don’t have good in-zone defensive stats available to quantify this, but with the puck in the d-zone Emelin had a tendency to get lost on plays. To some extent this was something everyone struggled with this season, maybe with the loss of Phil Housley to Buffalo, but Emelin didn’t have the skillset to make up for it either on the ice or in our minds by doing things that look cool. He’s not fast or agile enough to recover smoothly from being out of position or making the wrong read—learning a new system probably didn’t help—and his tendency to go for the big hit doesn’t help with that.

Hitting can sometimes be valuable, when it separates the opponent from the puck, but it shouldn’t be relied on as a primary means of defense. Emelin led all Preds defensemen and was second among Preds skaters in hits this year. Some of those hits were dangerous, which also wasn’t great.

His time spent on the penalty kill was baffling. For the last two seasons, the Predators’ penalty kill has been aggressive and uptempo, decent in its own end and a consistent threat to score. Alexei Emelin doesn’t fit with that identity at all, did spent a lot of time killing penalties for the Preds, and did an awful job clearing the front of the net while he was there.

On-ice shorthanded shots heatmap for the Preds with (left) and without (right) Emelin. In this context pink is bad and green is good.
Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com

Emelin scored one goal and added eight assists this year. With him on the ice at even strength, the Predators were below even in shot share, taking 46.6% of all shots at goal, as well as below even in expected goals share, with 47.5% of the chances. He did get good goaltending and finished the season with a positive goal differential as a result.

Best Moment

Nothing came of it, but this was pretty cool:

We can check out the goal he scored, too:

(Oh hey, Arvidsson Jump Screen™ sighting!)

Worst Moment

There was a lot of not-great hockey, but on balance I’d have to go with the New York road trip at the beginning of February instead. Emelin hit Rangers defenseman Marc Staal headfirst into the boards on February 3rd—Staal would not return until the 22nd—and then started the very next game, on February 5th, by being called for boarding Islanders forward Jason Chimera. Chimera was lucky enough to escape injury, but it was a bad, unnecessary, and ugly series of plays by Emelin.

Filip Forsberg was suspended for colliding with Jimmy Vesey during the same Rangers game on Feb 3rd, which made Emelin’s ongoing recklessness even more frustrating and confusing.

Grade: D

He was a really inadequate top-four defenseman when playing with Subban, but did somewhat better in a bottom-pairing role getting more favorable zone starts and playing against weaker competition. I would have graded him higher if he hadn’t been asked to do more than he seemed suited to.