– Montreal Canadiens
fans have heard so much about, yet seen so little, of Alexei Yemelin
in the seven years since he was a second-round draft pick, some may have needed confirmation of his existence.
At the team's first intra-squad scrimmage Saturday, fans saw first hand just how real Yemelin is.
The 25-year-old bruising Russian defenseman with seven years of professional experience in his homeland stood out during the game, administering a number of big hits and showing head coach Jacques Martin how valuable he could turn out to be for the Canadiens this season.
"You can see he moves well, he's a good skater," Martin said. "He plays physical and brings a dimension that could help our defense this season."
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If there is something the Canadiens defense lacked last season, it was a player that could make opposing forwards think twice about charging into the offensive zone. That weakness was most evident in Montreal's seven-game first round loss to the Boston Bruins
, as their big forwards were largely free to roam the Canadiens end as they wished.
Yemelin's English is very limited, if not non-existant, but he said through an interpreter Saturday that it was important for him to show the Canadiens right away what he could offer the team.
"I was ready for the season, I've worked hard for this," Yemelin said. "I need to show myself. That's what I tried to do."
Yemelin, listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, arrives in Montreal with a reputation as a hard-nosed player who did not shy away from rough play in Russia.
He showed it early in Saturday's scrimmage when he caught Ian Schultz
– a 6-foot-2, 201-pound bruiser – with his head down as he entered the offensive zone. Yemelin dropped him with a tremendous shoulder check that may have been penalized in a regular game because he left his feet to deliver it.
Yemelin also dropped Max Pacioretty
with a solid hip check that was surprising for an intra-squad game.
"He did catch someone with a big hit there," said free agent acquisition Erik Cole
. "We might have to make sure he stays on his skates when the regular season starts."
Cole was very impressed Saturday not only with what he saw Yemelin, but also in the informal workouts the Canadiens players were holding the past few weeks.
"He's been super," Cole said. "He's trying to communicate with the guys. He doesn't speak a tremendous amount of English but he's trying to talk to the guys, and that's really great. He's highly skilled and he skates very well."
The native of Togliatti, Russia – the hometown of former Canadiens forward Alex Kovalev
– has really blossomed during the past two years. He played for Russia at the last two IIHF World Championships, winning a silver medal in 2010 in Germany.
"[Yemelin]'s been super. He's trying to communicate with the guys. He doesn't speak a tremendous amount of English but he's trying to talk to the guys, and that's really great. He's highly skilled and he skates very well." -- Erik Cole
After showing limited potential offensively through the first six years of his pro career – totalling nine goals and 25 assists in 251 games – Yemelin broke out last season with 11 goals and 15 assists in 52 games with Kazan Ak-Bars.
"I watched a lot of NHL hockey on TV in Russia and the guys told me that the players here are a lot faster, so I was ready," Yemelin said. "I didn't only play in the KHL, I also played on the Russian national team. So that helped me a lot."
While it's obviously way too early to pencil Yemelin in to a defined role on the Canadiens defense, his apparent love for physical play should give him the inside track on the sixth defenseman spot that appears to be a battle between him and Yannick Weber
Fellow defenseman Josh Gorges
, however, said that Yemelin's physical element was not what most impressed him.
"He makes good, smart plays with the puck, and that'll help him coming over to North America," Gorges said. "He looked good out there."
So good, in fact, that the 1,200 or so Canadiens fans who watched that scrimmage Saturday likely left thinking Yemelin was well worth the wait.