Alexander Semin's pending RFA status and continuing evolution have put him in the spotlight for much of this young season. And now, with the recent injury to Alex Ovechkin, that spotlight becomes even brighter as many look to Semin to carry the offensive burden for the team.
It's in that role that the "Other" Alex - for now the only Alex - has drawn the most attention, as well as some of the harshest criticism. With no #8 to deflect the glare, Semin's flaws and idiosyncrasies seem more numerous, more pronounced - and more likely to get called out by his most vocal of critics.
Semin's always been a bit of a divisive player for Caps fans; there have long been those who were frustrated by him, those who appreciated the skill but recognize the flaws, and those who fiercely defended him regardless. But as evidenced by the response to a recent debate on his future with the team, it would seem that the anti-Seminic forces are gathering steam.
His performance in a 3-2 loss to New Jersey seemed for many to be the breaking point. Three penalties taken, one of which led to a New Jersey goal. No shots until the third period. Finishing -1 on a night when two of the three Devils' goals were scored on the power play. It was supposed to be his big shot, his first chance to prove he could make up for the loss of Ovechkin; it ended up being his worst game of the season, and led many to ask whether this team wouldn't be better off trading him to bolster depth elsewhere.
And yet it begs the question - could it be that we're judging him a little more harshly than we should?
Consistency and Effort
One of the criticisms of Semin's game is his lack of consistency and what seems to be a lack of effort at times.
In general, he's a streaky player. But it's not inconsistency so much as it's the nature of a sniper, particularly one with as much skill as he has, to hit hot and cold streaks. Those beautiful curl-and-drag moves that stymie defenders one night can just as easily lead to blatantly bad turnovers the next; because like the team, Semin's game is all about high risk, high reward.
And when the reward doesn't pay off, it's glaringly obvious.
Yet Semin has managed to put up a point-per-game this season and has put up at least 25 goals a season since the '06-'07 season, despite missing significant stretches of time with injury. Since the lockout he has been on the ice for 285 Capitals goals and has either scored or assisted on 209 of them. He's been a plus or even player in all but two games this year, has averaged three shots a night and trails only Ovechkin and Backstrom in average ice time for a forward.
He's also continued his production into the playoffs and raised his game, often being one of the best players on the ice. His numbers tell the tale; through twenty-one playoff games, Semin has picked up an impressive twenty-two points (8G, 14A).
A lot of times Semin's performance comes across like that of a great actor - making it look so effortless that sometimes he appears to not even be trying. But it takes a lot of skill to make what he does look easy.
We've been a bit spoiled here in DC the last few years, because we're blessed with a Russian Machine who never br-...well, who very rarely breaks. Ovechkin tears through games with reckless abandon, bouncing off of opponents, walls, glass, teammates, all with barely a scratch let alone significant injury. It's a point of pride for all of us that he can play such a physical style night in and night out.
And then we see someone like Semin, someone who has struggled with injuries, and we label him soft or unwilling to play through pain. It seems to be a bit of an unfair standard to hold him to.
Players absorb wear and tear differently, have varying pain thresholds and heal at different rates. What would keep some guys on the sidelines for weeks might cause others to hardly miss a shift. To compare one to the other is to compare apples and oranges, and to claim to know what one player "should be" able to fight through is downright silly.
Which brings us to the pet peeve of so many - Semin's knack for taking frequent, ill-timed and ill-advised penalties.
It's easy to assume, both from past seasons and recent performances, that Semin is penalty-prone. Yet there are some really interesting things that can be uncovered when looking at his track record this year.
For one thing, he's taken eight minor penalties through fifteen games - and yet he's only actually been in the box during four of those games. He has yet to be penalized in back-to-back games, and after taking two minor penalties in the loss to Detroit he went seven straight games without serving any penalty time.
For Semin, penalties are like everything else in his game - when things go wrong, they go really wrong. In only one of the aforementioned four games did he have just a single minor. In two of the games he was whistled twice, and we all remember the infamous three trips to the box against New Jersey.
What is so often ignored amid this penalty talk, however, is his equally keen ability to draw penalties. As memorable as that Devils game is (for all the wrong reasons), we somehow forget that Semin was also directly responsible for drawing three penalties - and scoring a power play goal - in a single period against the San Jose Sharks just a few weeks earlier. In fact, Semin's penalties drawn to penalties taken ratio is even - he gives as good as he takes.
Are the infractions still a bit troubling? Sure. Knowing when and where to take a penalty - and when and where not to - is something that comes with age, experience and maturity. And there's still time for Semin to get there.
The bottom line is this. Alexander Semin is an insanely talented, albeit highly enigmatic, member of this team. He's a homegrown product, a player drafted and developed by this organization. Questions of work ethic and consistency and the like aren't questions we can necessarily answer, at least not now - but we see the results, the numbers, the potential.
And it makes him easy to defend...off the ice, at least.