The Montreal Canadiens entered 2013-14 with three of their top four defensemen playing the final season of his contract, and the one who has yet to spend one second on the ice in 2013-14 was the first to have that uncertainty removed.
Alexei Emelin signed a four-year contract extension worth $4.1 million per season Thursday, preventing the hard-hitting defenseman from becoming an unrestricted free agent July 1.
Emelin has not played a game since having surgery in May to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He skated with his teammates in a non-contact jersey for the first time Thursday and said he hopes to be back playing in two weeks.
On the one hand, signing Emelin before dealing with Andrei Markov, a pending UFA, and P.K. Subban, a pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights, might ruffle some feathers considering the impact those two have had for the Canadiens this season. But on the other hand, this was a deal general manager Marc Bergevin had to get signed because it could prove to have great value down the road, especially if the NHL salary cap increases to the level some are anticipating for next season.
It is not easy to determine a dollar value for a defenseman like Emelin, whose greatest attributes do not show up in traditional statistics. If you look at his two goals and 10 assists last season, or his plus-2 rating, you might wonder how on earth Emelin deserves $4.1 million a season for four years.
But those numbers do not come close to properly reflecting Emelin's impact on the Canadiens.
Montreal did not deal with the loss of Emelin very well last season, allowing 55 goals in 15 games in the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs after his injury April 6. His combination of mobility, defensive presence and physical intimidation is rare, and one that is invaluable to the Montreal defense.
That combination also makes Emelin a unique commodity around the NHL, which likely would have driven up his price on the open market.
Some similar players around the NHL signed a contract in the same ballpark at around the same age as 27-year-old Emelin, including teammate Josh Gorges, who signed a six-year contract worth $3.9 million per season that began in 2012-13, when Gorges was 28.
Anton Volchenkov of the New Jersey Devils was 28 when he signed his six-year, $25.5 million contract; Tim Gleason was 29 when his four-year, $16 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes began last season; and Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek was 27 when he signed a five-year contract worth $20 million with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010.
Emelin falling into that range is a bargain because he is signing his contract now and inflation alone would suggest he is worth more money. But it still represents a certain amount of risk for Bergevin.
Not only has Emelin not played since his surgery, but he has not played that many NHL games, period. Having waited until he was 25 to sign with the Canadiens in 2011 after six seasons of professional hockey in Russia, Emelin has played 105 NHL games. But his experience is much greater than that because of his time spent playing at home.
Bergevin had to make an evaluation of Emelin based on a small NHL sample size, and that always involves a certain level of risk. In this case, however, it likely was a risk worth taking.
Emelin could have fetched more money and term on the open market next summer, especially if he proves he can play at a high level after his surgery. Bergevin has talked about the need to watch every penny under the salary cap to deal with the summer to come, when Subban’s contract could reach stratospheric heights and restricted free agent Lars Eller could be seeking a rich, long-term contract.
Throw in the possibility of re-signing Markov, who is playing some excellent hockey, and things start to look rather complicated for Bergevin this summer.
In that sense, getting Emelin signed at a fair, or even discounted, dollar figure was important in two ways. First, Bergevin has assured the Canadiens have half of their top-four on defense under contract. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the GM has a better idea of how much he has to work with in getting the other half signed.