Alex Semin: Gettin' Paid (With Fancy Charts!)

Over the past several weeks and months, there has been rampant speculation regarding the future of Alexander Semin and the Washington Capitals organization. Like any other superstar in the salary cap era, this speculation is fundamentally tied to his price. Every conversation about Sasha's future with the Capitals ultimately comes down to a single question: What is Semin worth? With tonight's game against Boston looking like his possible swansong in Caps red, it's worth trying to answer that question.

I should note that the point of this post is to attempt to assign some dollar value to Alex Semin, not to speculate on his future with the team. That question has way more moving parts and deserves discussion of it's own.

Few Washington Capitals have generated as many polarizing pixels post-lockout as Alexander Semin. When he's truly on, there just aren't that many players on earth who can touch his skill. Watching him abuse defenders and goalies alike picking corners with that wrist shot that, when it hits, is borderline unfair can cause even the stodgiest hockey fan to draw back and say simply, "Wow." The curse of the sniper that Semin (and his fans) must live with is that he simply cannot always be on, and those cold spells frustrate as much as his magic delights. When the price tag for his bipolar brand of production reaches $6.7 million, the hours spent waiting for Good Sasha's lightning to strike again drag on, and the hours dealing with Bad and Invisible Sasha feel like painful, expensive, torture.

It would be naive to argue that Semin's production this season has not been frustrating. Indeed, he has scored at a level equal to the likes of Vinny Prospal, Johan Franzen, or Justin Williams. By just about any stretch, he has underperformed his cap hit. Just how much? I graphed the top 100 scoring wingers by this season's point total and cap hit, broken down by their current contract's status. (Feel free to double check my data, I'm sure I screwed at least something up.) The best fit line you see includes all UFA deals, although (perhaps) surprisingly, the RFA best fit line matched up pretty closely:

(click on any of the pictures for larger and more readable versions)
Note, all stats were pulled from CBS Sports, all cap hits from capgeek.
Just for fun, I have identified the three Caps wingers who made the list, and unsurprisingly they all underperformed their cap hits.

Now, obviously, a graph like this does not tell the whole story. It does not take into account things like defensive ability or playoff scoring, to say nothing of contract length. However, it does seem to confirm what my eyes tell me, which is that the market does a fairly good job of pricing point totals versus cap hits for average to good players:

(edit: replaced the graph. This one has better resolution and correctly identifies the perfect UFA as Iginla, not Gaborik)
The conclusion is that high end production is a fundamentally different market than replacement level to good talent. Somewhere around 65 points for wingers, marginal costs begin to outpace marginal production. This is to be expected when you get towards the higher end of any market (as anyone who has ever shopped for a diamond, luxury roadster, or computer component can attest) and the flighty nature of scoring sets teams up for disappointment. There really are just fewer elite players, so the chances of missing (or slumping) are greater.

So where does this leave Alex Semin and his next contract? Well, it depends entirely on what kind of player you think Alex Semin is. If he is the mid-50 point player he has been the past two seasons, the market has a place for him (and it's at about $4.5-5.5 million per year). If the past two years are a slump and not a trend, and a return to 75 point seasons is likely, the market is going to have a lot more difficulty.

I submit that Alex Semin belongs in one of two groups of comparable players, depending on how the team sees his future:

If the team thinks a return to 75 point seasons is likely, he should be grouped with the likes of Martin St. Louis ($5.625mm), Jason Pominville ($5.3mm), or Marian Hossa ($5.27mm). In a lot of ways, all of those comparisons are problematic because they take into account the existence of longer term contracts (Hossa in particular. If we discount Hossa's farce $1mm salary seasons, his cap hit would be closer to $7.4mm). St. Louis just finished his first year of a four year deal, and Pominville just finished his third of five. One would have to think that a one or a two year deal with those comps would need to increase salary a bit. Without considering outside influences (Kuznuetsov, any CBA changes) I have to believe a $6-6.25mm deal is appropriate for this grouping. As Semin's current $6.7mm deal is widely considered an overpayment, a modest pay cut to the same player (and, remember, this grouping assumes he is the same player) would be appropriate.

If the team thinks 54 points is Alex Semin's new normal, there are a lot more possibilities for similar players (and, for that matter, replacement players if things don't work out). Chris Kunitz ($3.725mm), Michael Ryder ($3.5mm), Justin Williams ($3.65mm), Martin Erat ($4.5mm), Erik Cole ($4.5mm), or Daniel Alfredsson ($4.875mm) all provide useful comps. Like group A, term presents comparable challenges for group B. Only Ryder and Kunitz have fewer than four years on their deals, and I think it's fair to say that both players' reputations aren't on the level of Semin. Cole or Alfredsson are probably closer, which would ballpark a short deal at $4.75-5.25mm using the same logic as above.

In the end, there is a limit to how useful this sort of analysis can be. So much of contract negotiation is personal, and with Semin in particular we just don't know that much about his willingness to accept a lower dollar figure than before (and, for that matter, a lower figure than his peer Nicklas Backstrom). Any negotiation needs a starting point, and for the Caps that point should be in the above group B.

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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