MONTREAL - The 2016-17 season did not go as planned for Alexei Emelin. The year started out well, with the veteran Russian defenseman patrolling the blue line alongside the newly-acquired Shea Weber just six games into the campaign.
But things got complicated towards the end of the winter. After spending 56 games paired up with the former Predators captain, Emelin was replaced by Andrei Markov -- shortly after Claude Julien took over coaching duties for the Canadiens. Then, seeing Emelin stumble through a rough patch, Julien scratched him from the lineup. The new Habs bench boss knew it would only be temporary, given the Russian rearguard's immense potential, and Julien commenced a rotation of players in and out of the lineup to help integrate the newcomers that arrived at the trade deadline.
"Everyone has highs and lows throughout the season. Personally, I've always appreciated Emelin as a defenseman, even when I was in Boston. He's a guy you don't like to have to face, but one you love having on your team. He's a good player, he helps us out and he should be one of our top six on the backend. He's had a couple of tough games lately, so it's maybe a chance for him to adjust a bit," said Julien during the Habs' road trip to Western Canada, a day before scratching Emelin for the game against Vancouver on March 7.
He missed another game a few days later, before returning to the lineup full-time until he went down with a lower-body injury. Still, despite some of the lows he experienced this season, Emelin would rather focus on the positives.
"Every mistake is a chance to learn and gain experience. I make sure to analyze my game and go over plays; I also speak with the trainers and the coaching staff as much as possible. Mentally, it's very important and useful to be able to move on from a game, good or bad, and focus entirely on the next one," confided Emelin, who is still rehabbing his right knee after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on April 26.
"Emmy" may want to forget about a few games from this season, but he still finished with 10 points, including two goals, in 71 games. And although the Togliatti native recently celebrated his 31st birthday, he believes it's never too late to keep improving.
"I think every season serves as a learning experience. Sometimes, you can learn more from an unsuccessful season than from a successful one. Let's just say I learned a lot this year, and I'm going to make sure I use all that experience and grow from it. Next year is a clean slate, and I want to make sure it goes well," explained Emelin, who scored one goal in two playoff games against the New York Rangers.
On the other hand, when it comes to the physical aspect of the game, it's Emelin who can help others do the learning. The defenseman finished ninth in the League in hits, with 241, giving him a per-game average of 3.2 in the regular season. And among the top 10 hitters in the NHL, Emelin also finished third in blocked shots, with 127.
Based on those numbers, it's clear his teammates see the game differently when he's in the lineup than when he's watching from the pressbox.
"It's a big difference. Guys are definitely looking over their shoulder twice when he's on the ice. He brings that huge physical element to the game. He's a Russian tank. He's called that for a reason. He's so big, so strong, and so physical that he's a real pain to play against. He makes our identity that much stronger," outlined Nathan Beaulieu when Emelin made his return against the Rangers, which turned out to be a very physical series.
Video: BUF@MTL: Emelin checks Reinhart
Emelin acknowledges that he went through some challenging moments late in the year, and the bruising blue-liner is focusing his attention inward.
"The only person I feel the need to impress is myself. I can't control what anyone else thinks, so I focus on proving things to myself and playing at the highest level I know I'm capable of. Every season is a new opportunity to show what I can do," mentioned Emelin, who dished out eight hits in the playoffs.
Once he gets back on his feet following his offseason surgery, Emelin will take a bit of time to see his family in Russia and continue with his training.
"We didn't go back to Russia last summer, so I haven't seen my parents in a while, and the kids haven't seen their grandparents," concluded the veteran D-man and father of three. "Once we're there, we may go on a relaxing vacation somewhere sunny all together to rest."