Great news for Habs fans as the Montreal Canadiens announced that Alexei Emelin has been resigned to a new four-year, 16.4 million dollar contract. Emelin, who was drated in 2004 and signed from the KHL in 2011, played his way from 2 million dollars per year to 4.1, and few could complain with the increase.
Emelin has played with grit and character since arriving from Russia, averaging 3.3 hits per game over his two seasons with the Canadiens. After suffering a beating at the hands of Alexander Svitov while playing for Kazan AK-Bars in 2009, Emelin underwent facial reconstruction and has several metal plates under his eye. Yet Emelin has never backed down from a big hit, even though in today’s NHL a solid, clean check is treated like a crime. He was sucker punched and abused during the 2011-2012 season while still recovering from his injuries and unable to fight.
In 2012-2013, Emelin fought Zdeno Chara, Marcus Foligno and Evander Kane – all of them tough customers. He held his own in all three, and was never deterred from laying out big hits. For whatever reason, the rest of the league seems to take offense at Emelin dishing out big checks, and was previously forced to stand up for himself – the result of playing on a notoriously small team. The additions of George Parros and Douglas Murray, alongside tough-guy Brandon Prust, should give Emelin a little more freedom to roam the ice when he returns from a knee injury sustained while hitting Milan Lucic.
Emelin may be locked up until 2018, but Marc Bergevin and his management team still have a lot of work ahead of them. Andrei Markov, Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray and Raphael Diaz are out of contract next season, and P.K. Subban becomes a restricted free-agent come season’s end. Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, arguably the two best defensive prospects for the Habs, are both signed until 2014-2015. But the question becomes who will stay, who will go, and who is the next priority for Bergevin?
Emelin was signed so early into the season because of his injury. Many players notoriously dislike negotiating contracts during the season as it becomes a huge distraction. With Emelin out until late November or early December, the two parties had some time to negotiate. But Emelin would have been a high priority for Bergevin anyways – Emelin is arguably almost as important to the Canadiens blue-line as P.K. Subban. Other than Murray, Emelin is the only Canadiens’ defenseman who can set a physical tone, and who other teams have to be wary of. Emelin is also a much better skater than Murray. The team sagged without Emelin’s presence last season, losing six of 10 after his injury, giving up an average of 3.5 goals per game in that span.
P.K. Subban is clearly the highest priority, but because he is a restricted free-agent it is unlikely the two parties will finalize a deal until next summer. Raphael Diaz is likely to be the next one signed, as he is only 27 years old and has been playing very well alongside Josh Gorges.
It will be interesting to see what the Canadiens’ brass decides to do with the veteran defenseman. Douglas Murray is 33 years old and is certainly not getting any faster. Bouillon is 38 and while he has been as solid as ever on the blue-line, the Habs could decide to part ways with both of them. Jarred Tinordi is the hard-hitting, stay-at-home defenseman who could take over from both of them. Iif he proves himself this year playing top minutes in the AHL and injury replacement minutes in the NHL, Bergevin could decide to go with Tinordi.
And so we come to the Andrei Markov dilemma. Montreal will have 20 million in cap space come season’s end, but Bergevin will have to be very careful with his money. Subban deserves – and will receive – top defenseman money. Kris Letang receives 7.25 per year and Subban will expect something in that region. Lars Eller becomes an RFA at the end of the season, and will receive a significant salary increase after his impressive play over the past two seasons. There is also the imminent re-signings of Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, both of whom become RFA’s in 2015. With all of those factors, can the Canadiens even afford to keep Andrei Markov?
Markov currently makes 5.75 million per season. If it’s money he’s after, there is certainly a market for Markov’s offensive talents. Markov could easily find at least that much money if not more in Philadelphia, New Jersey, or another big hockey market searching for a power play quarterback. Markov has been Montreal’s anchor for years, providing perfect passes for defenseman such as Sheldon Souray, Mark Streit, Marc-André Bergeron, James Wisniewski, and currently P.K. Subban.
It would be sad to see Markov go, but emotions cannot be factored into the decision making process in these situations. Chicago has proven that by shipping off their Stanley Cup winning heroes twice in four years only to return even stronger. Beaulieu is looking very promising; his vision and puck movement were impressive during his stint with the Habs this season and a case could be made for Beaulieu to eventually take Markov’s reins on the power play.
If Markov wants to stick with the club that drafted him 162nd overall in 1998, he may have to take a salary cut. Teams have proven time and time again that youth is the way to be successful, and Montreal could get burned if they give Markov big money and are unable to re-sign some of their top prospects. Markov has been playing much better since being paired with Subban, but the fact remains that Markov is not the player he once was and has definitely lost the jump in his step. Markov could return a big haul at the trade deadline, something Marc Bergevin will certainly keep in the back of his mind. Yet Markov remains one of Montreal’s most used defensemen, averaging around 24 minutes per game. There is no easy answer to should Markov stay or go, but Bergevin has proven that he makes calculated and informed decisions, and he will make the move that most benefits the team.
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