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Does Alex Semin Need an Elite Center to Succeed?

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Two weeks ago we completed our annual wrap of Capitals forward Alexander Semin. One of the questions at the end of the recap asked if Semin needed an elite center to pull more out of the enigmatic player. Challenging contemporary hockey wisdom, some openly thought no, that Semin, a wing,  was enough of a playmaker that he could dictate play regardless of who he had as his pivot. It's an important question to answer, because if the answer is indeed "no", the Caps do not need to chase a high-cost center this summer (whether via free agency or trade). So let's look at some advanced stats - primarily around Semin's even strength performance with the five centers that he received significant playing time with - and see if there's an answer somewhere in the numbers.   

Center TOI Semin Avg Shot Dist (ft)   Semin Pts    Semin Pts/60   GF/60    GA/60    +/-ON/60  
Nicklas Backstrom 323.9 35.5 13 2.41 2.96
Marcus Johansson 179.0 29.0 8 2.68 3.35
1.01 2.35
Jason Arnott 114.9 37.5 3 1.57 2.61
1.04 1.57
Mathieu Perreault 98.9 28.1 5 3.03 3.64
1.21 2.43
Tomas Fleischmann   82.1 34.4 3 2.19 2.92 1.46 1.46

Note: Numbers exclude empty-net goals. Minutes played courtesy of Neil Greenberg. GF/60 = rate of goals scored over 60 minutes; GA/60 = rate of goals allowed over 60 minutes; +/-ON/60 = difference between GF/60 and GA/60.

There are some surprising numbers in this analysis:

  • In terms of impact, when Semin was paired with Backstrom - an elite playmaker - he had the lowest +/-ON/60 than with any other center, +0.74.
  • Just as surprising, Semin had much a more positive impact skating with Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson than he did with anyone else.When paired with either #85 or #90, Semin's average shot distances were considerably lower, his points per 60 rate were higher and his +/-ON/60 was dominant. (More to come on MarJo shortly.)
  • With respect to the generally accepted theory that the Semin Whisperer - Jason Arnott- got more out of Semin, it simply wasn't backed up by the stats. Arnott may have helped Semin prepare more diligently, play a more honest game and focus on the little things that make a better hockey player, but Semin scored his lowest output with Arnott (1.57 points per 60) and couldn't get Semin closer shots to the net, demonstrated by a 37.5 foot average shot distance, the longest of any of the five centers.
  • For the three fans in Caps Nation longing for the return of Tomas Fleischmann, a quick look at these numbers may reinforce that position. However, Flash's 2010-11 tenure with the Caps lasted the first 23 games of the season, overlapping with the same period Good Sasha paid the Caps a visit and carried the Caps offense (25 points in his first 19 games). Flash's impressive numbers as Semin's center may be due to being in the right place in the right time and riding the Semin wave more than anything else.

Without question, Backstrom and Arnott are currently better centers at their respective points in their career than Perreault and Johansson. Yet Semin produced more with the latter pair than the initial pair. What should that tell you? For one, Arnott may not be worth re-signing unless he's willing to take a big discount. More importantly, it tells us that Semin doesn't necessarily need a good or great center to drive puck possession or get the most out of him. The primary driver of Alex Semin's production appears to be Alex Semin, not elite play from the pivot.

So this begs another question. Does this mean the Caps should simply slide Marcus Johansson - he of the benign $0.9M cap hit - permanently to 2C and use the money to bolster the line-up elsewhere? To answer that, let's look at two more data points comparing Semin's even strength play with each of the previously listed centers, namely the difference between shots for and against per 60 (Line SOG Differential/60) and Semin's SOG per 60, all at even strength.

Center TOI Line SOG Diffential/60 Semin SOG/60 
Nicklas Backstrom 323.9 6.5 8.7
Marcus Johansson 179.0 -6.4 7.4
Jason Arnott 114.9 4.2 10.4
Mathieu Perreault 98.9 4.2 10.9
Tomas Fleischmann 82.1 8.0 11.7


Something sticks out here, namely the -6.4 shot difference over 60 minutes with Johansson. This indicates that Semin's line gets outworked when MarJo is the center, something that doesn't happen with any of the other four centers. And it's not even close - Semin and Johansson allow more shots than they produce by a wide margin (10.6) over the next closest data point (Arnott). Plus, Semin doesn't generate as many shots on net with Johansson as his pivot (7.4). So while those two have a very successful +/-ON/60 of +2.35, it's an anomaly and unsustainable over the long run. Goal scoring is heavily influenced by luck, whereas producing/preventing shots on goal is a skill-driven event. A line simply cannot get outworked in the shot count and continue to produce considerably more goals for than goals against. There will eventually be a regression to the mean, and it will be quick.

The conclusion? Semin does not appear to mesh as well with Johansson as others, a trend that doesn't bode well for the highly paid 2W and the 2C of the future. But let's caveat that. For starters, Johansson still hasn't peaked in his development, nor has he completely adjusted to the North American game. Additionally, Johansson and Semin's shots differential numbers improved - albeit slightly - from the first half of the season to the second half. Finally, the sample size is not large enough to draw hard conclusions. So there is still hope that they can mesh together. But the initial returns bare a potentially discomforting reality that the Caps have to aggressively track: if Semin and Johansson are the core of the Caps second line of the future, either the two of them find better chemistry or the Caps will have an underperforming second line on their hands.