Canadiens European prospects season review

By Jason Menard

Russian defenseman Alexei Emelin, the Montreal Canadiens third-rounder (84th overall) in 2004, made some big impressions this past season – unfortunately, not all of them were good.

In his first full season in the Russian Super League with Lada, Emelin put up big numbers, both on the scoreboard and in the penalty box. The robust rearguard netted six goals and six assists in 44 Super League games. These point totals are even more impressive when you consider he spent 131 minutes in the penalty box. Of course, he continued to show his long-standing commitment to defensive responsibility by posting a + 9 over the season.

However, all the promise of Emelin’s season was almost wiped away following his five-game suspension for a punch that knocked out Mettalurg’s Evgeny Varlamov and left him with a concussion. Late in a game, Emelin took a puck to the helmet off a Varlamov shot. Emelin went down to the ice and, when Varlamov came to kneel next to the prone player and offer his apologies, Emelin leveled him with a punch to the chin, knocking Varlamov out. Emelin, in various reports, refutes the punch and states that he simply raised his hands out of a natural defense tendency when we saw someone approaching him quickly.

“We had two scouts at that game,” explained Montreal Canadiens director of player personnel Trevor Timmins. “It was a tough, physical series and this guy took a shot at Emelin while he was lying on the ice. He got up and put his fists up – he must have got the guy on the chin to knock him out.

“That’s [Emelin], he can play nasty. He’s going to defend himself in the heat of the battle.”

There were discussions that the soon-to-be 20-year-old Emelin could face criminal charges from the event, but the local district attorney decided not to press on with the case. He cited Emelin’s prompt apology and the fact that Varlamov will make a full recovery and had publicly forgiven the Habs prospect as reasons behind his decision.

Lada was bounced from the playoffs in two games after Emelin’s suspension, so the Russian rearguard will miss the first three games of the Super League season next year to fulfill his obligations.

Timmins added he’s hoping Emelin will come overseas next year to continue his development in North America. Calling him the best defenseman in the league, he’s excited about his long-term potential.

Slovakian forward Juraj Mikus appears to have reached a plateau in his development. After wowing the crowds last year during the World Junior Hockey Championships with a seven-point in six game performance, this year’s experience left watchers unsatisfied. Mikus, the Habs’ fourth-round pick, 121st overall, in the 2005 Entry Draft, was held pointless in six games in this year’s tournament. Worse than that, he posted a –5 plus/minus in a tournament in which the Finnish coach decided to go with those players in major junior as opposed to home-grown talents like Mikus.

In Slovakian Extraliga play, Mikus has fared a little better. Playing with the big boys, Mikus posted respectable numbers: four goals and seven assists in 47 games. He also displayed the defensive responsibility that was so notably lacking in the WJC, finishing the year +2. Mikus’ season is over following Skalica’s loss to MHK Nitra in the Elite League’s quarter-final series.

He has taken advantage of the opportunity to play in the Slovakian Elite League since he was 17 years old, but the Canadiens organization may be ready to see the now 19-year-old venture across the ocean to take his game to the next level and acclimatize to the North American environment. Timmins would like him to move to the CHL and play a year of junior.

“He needs to come over, get used to the game, and start learning the language and the culture,” Timmins explained. “The Slovakian league is not really a good one for development.”

Swedish netminder Christopher Heino-Lindberg split time between Farjestad of the Swedish Elite League and the Tier-2 Nybro IF club. Heino-Lindberg backed up Farjestad starter Daniel Henriksson and played in seven games, posting a respectable 2.66 GAA behind a not-so-respectable .898 save percentage. In his five games in Tier-2, he fared similarly, posting a 3.82 GAA but upping his save percentage to .915.

Timmins’ take on the Canadiens sixth-round selection (177th overall) in the 2003 Entry Draft, is that the 21-year-old netminder needs to get at least one year as a starter in the Elite League under his belt to take the next step in his development. With a log-jam of goaltenders in the organization (Yann Danis, Carey Price, Olivier Michaud, Jaroslav Halak, and pending free agents on the NHL-level Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer), that may be his best bet long-term.

Oskari Korpikari, the hulking, stay-at-home rearguard, for the perennial powerhouse Ouloun Karpat in the Finnish Elite League enjoyed another solid season. Not known for his offensive prowess, Korpikari played in 56 games this season, totaling just one goal and one assist, yet showcasing the robust, defensively conscious play that drew the Habs to take a flyer on him with their seventh-round selection (217th overall) in 2003.

Korpikari helped lead his squad to the Finnish Elite League title and a silver-medal finish in the IIHF European Champions’ Cup, losing out to Moscow Dynamo 5-4. His defensive play was a major component of Karpat holding Davos Switzerland to one goal and shutting out Sweden Frolunda on their road to the championship. Timmins said that the 21-year-old Korpikari needs at least one more year in Finland to develop.

Joining Korpikari in the European Championships with his Pardubice squad was Tomas Linhard, the Habs second-round choice in 2002 (45th overall). The hulking defenseman played in 49 of 52 games for his squad, netting just one goal and one assist. But it was his physical play that turned heads again this year. Linhard, a former OHL player with the London Knights, has continued his development against this elite competition and the 22-year-old looks as if he’s planning on carving out a long career in his native Czech Republic.

And while both Korpikari and Linhard showed well in the European Championships, only one Habs prospect walked away with the gold. Moscow Dynamo’s Mikhail Grabovski parlayed his stellar season into a gold-medal performance. In 33 games this year with Dynamo, Grabovski netted four goals and 12 assists. The 22-year-old was taken in the fifth round of the 2004 Entry Draft and the Belarussian is doing his part, along with Kyle Chipchura and the aforementioned Emelin to make that draft crop a bumper one for the Habs. Timmins said Grabovski’s four-goal performance in last year’s World Championship game got people talking, and now he’d like him to come over and play in the AHL.

“With Europeans, you have to wait until they’re ready to come and play at least on an AHL level,” Timmins said. “You don’t want them to come and get stuck in the ECHL right away.”

Russian rearguard Konstantin Korneev, who was taken in the ninth round of the 2002 Entry Draft (275th overall) played in 13 games for AK Bars in Russian Super League, earning two assists and a +2 ranking. The 5’11 defenseman is playing a ‘tweener role now, not physical enough to be a bruiser, but without the offensive spark needed to play that role. Expect him to continue to develop in the Russian Super League for the foreseeable future.


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