WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 13: Alexander Semin of the Washington Capitals scores the game winning goal at 18:24 of overtime against the New York Rangers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on April 13, 2011 in Washington, DC.
No one disputes Alexander Semin's talent. As Neil Greenberg details in his Capitals Insider post quoted above, Semin is a legitimately outstanding offensive player, measured by both traditional counting stats and advanced possession metrics. And we've written about both his stellar defense and penalty-killing prowess in the past.
Even his harshest critics recognize Semin's on-ice brilliance. And it's the failure to consistently perform to the best of his ability when it matters most (along with his $6.7 million salary) that are the primary reasons he has so many and such vocal critics - it's "The Curse of Elite Talent." In the world of professional sports, salary is generally a function of talent and expectations a function of salary. In Alex Semin's case, his elite talent has earned him a high-end salary; these are facts. But where reasonable minds can differ is as to whether or not he has delivered on those dollars.
Any look at Alex Semin's regular season rate or post-season aggregate stats misses the two most important (and valid) criticisms of the player: that he has a hard time staying healthy and that he's failed to produce at a high level in the playoffs, respectively. On the former point, Semin has missed more than 20% of the Caps' games regular season games over the past four seasons. His scoring rates and possession stats are quite impressive over that span and have helped the Caps become one of the League's best regular season teams. But missing one-out-of-every-five games is, at the very least, frustrating - to fans, to coaches, and likely to the player himself.
Then again, missing regular season games wouldn't matter much if Semin delivered those impressive numbers come playoff time. Interestingly, Semin hasn't missed a single playoff game over the past four years (insert clever "disappearing act" quip here). But playoff hockey isn't regular season hockey. As Justin Bourne put it, presciently, just a couple of weeks before the Caps lost to Montreal in the first round of the 2010 playoffs:
If your team scores mucker-style playoff goals, you need to have the throttle down to be effective (and you need some bounces). So when you can’t be at that 100%, teams that have dangly skill guys (who are dangerous at half-speed) can still put enough pucks in the net to win.
And over the course of an 82 game season, plenty of games are played by two worn down teams. Which is why, when you have the natural firepower of a Washington, you can score that extra goal or two without the extra effort, and collect your two points. In the past, it hasn’t been that the Presidents Trophy winning team has the best team, they’ve just had the best skill guys.
No one personifies that indictment of regular season achievement more than Alexander Semin, a dangly skill guy who's still dangerous at half-speed. And when the playoffs have arrived - and mucker-style teams have the throttle down on a nightly basis, those extra points just haven't been there for Semin. To wit, here's how Semin's goals- and points-per-60 at five-on-five in the playoffs have compared to his regular season rates over the last four seasons (stats via behindthenet.ca):
Perhaps it's random (37 playoff games is, after all, a relatively small sample). And scoring, in general, drops in the pos-season. And aggregate numbers certainly don't tell the whole story (for the best example of that, look no further than Alex Ovechkin's 2009-10 playoffs).
But compare those numbers - Semin's precipitous drops - to Ovechkin's (whose goal-scoring rates have increased by 24%, 18% and 46% over the past three seasons after a 10% drop in 2007-08), and it's hard to not be left wanting more out of Semin. Then again, one wonders why Nicklas Backstrom doesn't catch one-tenth of the heat Semin does for his playoff flops - over the last four seasons, the Caps' premiere passer has seen his assists-per-sixty at five-on-five drop 100% in 2007-08, 14% in 2009-10 and 74% this past season, sandwiched around a modest 21% increase in 2008-09.
As noted, however, those numbers are based on tiny samples, especially as compared to several hundred regular-season games. A bounce here, a pipe there, a slightly less-hot goalie and things might look a lot different. What would perhaps be a better reflection of a player raising the level of his play for the playoffs than scoring would be his possession stats, and rather than using Corsi, looking at the player's Corsi relative to those of his teammates (Corsi Rel). The theory here is that when a player's change from regular- to post-season is positive, it means he's done better relative to his teammates than before (but it doesn't mean he's doing well or even is a positive player here); when it's negative, it means he's done worse relative to his teammates than he did during the regular season. So when a player's change is positive, it means he's stepping it up more than his teammates (by this one metric) and when it's down, it means he's not; if everyone had no change, it would mean that everyone's raising their game (or choking) equally.
With that in mind, a look at the four forwards who have been here for four playoff runs and are still here, and their respective changes in regular-to-postseason Corsi Rel for those four seasons:
A few notes here:
- After his worst post-lockout regular season, Semin stepped it up in the 2008 playoffs. After the best points-per game season of his career, Semin stepped it up in the 2009 playoffs. After the best goal-scoring season of his career, Semin stepped it up in the 2010 playoffs. This past season? Not so much. But point totals simply don't paint a full picture. They rarely do.
- Backstrom and Ovechkin had such dominant seasons at even-strength in 2009-10 that some fall-back in the playoffs makes sense.
Brooks Laich is all over the road. In his monster "up" year, he skated the playoffs with Matt Bradley and David Steckel nearly 40% of the time at even-strength. In the other years? Backstrom and Semin in 2008, Brendan Morrison and Semin in 2010, and Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson in 2011 (followed closely by Ovechkin/Backstrom). In other words, he improved the most in the playoffs when playing largely on the third line and struggled when on a scoring line. Hmm...[Ed. Note: There was a mistake on the Laich calculations over the first three seasons. The numbers are now correct, and the analysis should read: Brooks Laich is all over the road. In his big "down" year, he skated the playoffs with Matt Bradley and David Steckel nearly 40% of the time at even-strength. In the other years? Backstrom and Semin in 2008, Brendan Morrison and Semin in 2010, and Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson in 2011 (followed closely by Ovechkin/Backstrom). In other words, he improved the most in the playoffs when playing largely on a scoring line and struggled when on a checking line, which is hardly unexpected given the roles of those lines.]
- Ovechkin is a prime time player, even if examples to the contrary can be cherry-picked.
Ultimately, Alexander Semin is a phenomenal talent. And there's plenty of time for him to re-write the narrative on the player that he is. Because for now, that player is one who has been unable to duplicate his regular season success when it's mattered. The statistics speak for themselves.