From Alzner to Varlamov, we're taking a look at and grading the 2008-09 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2009-10. Next up, Alexander Semin.
#28 / Left Wing / Washington Capitals
Mar 03, 1984
$4,600,000 cap hit in 2009-10; RFA after '09-'10
Key Stat: During the regular campaign, Semin finished with the highest GF/60 on the 2008-09 Capitals, an eye-popping 4.11 (Alex Ovechkin was second at 3.72), and also had the best GF/60 vs. GA/60 differential (1.84).
Interesting Stat: His GF/60 vs. GA/60 differential through 14 playoff games was exactly zero.
The Good: Semin reached NHL career highs in points, GWGs, and +/- this past season, despite playing in the fewest number of games of the last three seasons. Overall, he finished 16th in the league in goals scored, in 62 GP (fewest of the top 20 snipers in the league). (He also erupted in an unprecedented display of raw emotion, pummeling the back of Rangers D Marc Staal to provide a wholly-unscripted and spontaneous hockey fight for the ages, drawing the Verizon Center crowd out of their seats to a standing O.)
He was a force in the first-round Rangers series, scoring 5 goals and 3 assists in the seven-game set, failing to register a point only in Game 2, a 1-0 Rangers victory. (Though mention of his production during that next series is conspicuously absent.)
The Caps' power play finished as second-most productive in the league, and Semin was largely responsible for that production. He was third in PP TOI/60 behind Ovechkin and Mike Green, and second in PP PTS/60 only to Nicklas Backstrom. Having Semin as a shooting option was indispensible to such profilic scoring with the extra man this season. Even if his PP goal total dropped slightly from 2007-08 (10) to 2008-09 (8), his season PP points total increased 50%, from 20 to 30.
Through the first month of the season, into mid-November, Alex Semin was looking like the league's Hart trophy winner, and Ovechkin was, for a moment in time never to be repeated (we hope), looking like "the other Alex." Semin was leading the league in goals and points, particularly scoring clutch goals, and crushing would-be division rivals with a scintillating display of offensive might, a dominance that had Caps Nation delirious with joy. On a night when the division lead was on the line, and a statement needed to be made to the only legitimate challengers to the Southeast crown, in Carolina, Semin, on the (sometimes infamous) line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, unleashed a shock-and-awe attack at RBC Center, and the game was over well before the final horn. Coach Boudreau decreed, of that top line, "They can be cute if they are going to get five goals a night."
The Bad: And therein lies the dilemma with a still young and developing Sasha Semin. With the ice as his canvas, he's a master artist. He possesses breathtaking natural talent for executing a myriad of critical elements of the game of hockey. To watch his artistry, which has only been further refined and enhanced during his young career, is to be reminded of why the game is so captivating. And for all of his supreme skills, Sasha is well within his right to, rhetorically, ask "What's so special about [Sidney Crosby]?" and declare that "[Patrick Kane] is a much more interesting player." Because Semin thrills the fan with feats of dexterity like perhaps no one in the game right now.
However, though witnessing the slick sniper may richly satisfy the assembled on a given game night, there's quite a lot of brilliance to go around in absorbing the NHL game, to make the price of admission worthwhile, and I think we'd all trade a bit of the flourish for a greater focus on ultimate victory. In short, there's beauty in ugliness when it comes to hockey. (Just ask the Penguin fan.) Crosby's name will soon be etched into the legendary barreled base of the Stanley Cup, while neither Semin's nor Kane's name will be found there, as of yet. Semin simply tries too often to make the jaw-dropping play, when a more straightforward approach is more effective.
Next, what some may call the most significant, acute liability of Semin's game: his penchant for commiting minor restraining fouls. For most of the season, Semin led the team by far in RF/60. And he committed 10 more minor penalties overall in the 2008-09 season than in the season before, in roughly the same number of GP. Notably, Semin committed just five restraining fouls in 14 playoff games, an average of roughly 0.9 RF/60. Better, when it counts most, but still not great for an elite player.
Why so many penalties? The answer can, at least in part, be found in his exorbitant shift lengths. Sasha gets tired, but still he won't quit on the puck when it's lifted from him. No longer able to overtake his opponent with skating stride, he uses illegal methods to attempt to take back the biscuit.
All that being said about penalties, Semin drew about as many penalties as he committed (20 taken and 19 drawn in the regular season, and 6 taken and 7 drawn, at even-strength). Still, with his game-breaking skill, he could improve on that ratio. When it comes to driving the net, and taking hangers-on with him, to borrow a phrase, sometimes he feels like a nut, and sometimes he doesn't.
Finally, I often find it difficult to criticize a player for not playing through pain, because I honestly have no idea of what that player is enduring (especially, as in Semin's case, if I don't have the opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue with him.) Or for being injury-prone, that the frequency of injury or extent of time on the IR necessarily evidences a player's lack of commitment to the game or to his teammates. (See, e.g., Peake, Pat, for a clear example to the contrary.) And so I won't question Semin's commitment.
But, nevertheless, managing an NHL franchise to win a Cup involves cold calculation, and the propensity of a player to be out of the lineup due to injury has to factor into the long-term planning of the team's personnel on the ice. Semin's now played in 63 and 62 games in the last two seasons: is this all that we can expect for next season as well? Perhaps, with all of the offensive talent on this Caps team going forward, missing 20-odd games in the regular season is not so relevant. But he was also busted during the playoffs. So it appears that, aside from the first month of the season, there was hardly a time when Semin was not nursing some serious ailment.
The Vote: Rate Semin below on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) based on his performance relative to his potential and your expectations for the season - if he had the best year you could have imagined him having, give him a 10; if he more or less played as you expected he would, give him a 5 or a 6; if he had the worst year you could have imagined him having, give him a 1.
The Discussion: Can Semin again play a full, or nearly full, season, and reach his 50-goal potential? Is he one of those players with über skill but less of that vaguely-defined hockey sense to match? What will it take for him to earn a 10 rating next year?