I have a lot of respect for Matt Bradley. He was rarely the best player on the ice in terms of talent, but he was always the best player on the ice in terms of effort. He also never had a problem telling it like it is. For a consummate team player and all around good guy like Matt Bradley, calling out a teammate by name for not performing, even a former teammate, is remarkable.
We all know that Alexander Semin is one of the most sublimely talent hockey players in the world, but very few of us really know what’s going on inside his head, and not least because most of it is in Russian. While Bradley has a much better insight than almost everyone, Semin is still an enigma, a more talented version of Alexei Kovalev who still hasn’t won a Stanley Cup on the coattails of Mark Messier and Brian Leetch. He is every bit as capable of scoring 60 goals as Alexander Ovechkin but hasn’t put up the kind of numbers expected of him. He is also hockey-wise more like a snooty artiste, so when he’s teamed with Alex Ovechkin, a fun-loving bull in a China shop, it makes the contrast ever so much more glaring.
But to say that Alexander Semin doesn’t care is going too far.
Semin is definitely a stranger in a strange land. A native of Siberia, Semin doesn’t speak English by choice. He lives in Washington, D.C., a city even Caps goalie coach Arturs Irbe called too expensive before he went home to Latvia. The DC Metropolitan Area is famous for its bad drivers on clogged roads, it is the home of obnoxiously high property values and high crime rates, and even the nice neighborhoods boast a transient population made up of some of the most ambitious and arrogant people in the country. It’s tough living here even when you’re used to it. Semin knows that, that's part of why he went back to Russia for two seasons.
From an outside perspective, Semin’s scoring numbers are impressive. Over the past 5 seasons, he’s posted 166 goals (12th best) and 332 points in 340 games (and 358 penalty minutes), plus another 30 points in 37 playoff games. He’s had 5 consecutive seasons of 26 or more goals, but he’s also had 3 seasons of 65 or fewer games played. When Semin plays a full season and gets over 200 shots on goal, he scores a lot. With a 40-goal season under his belt, Semin is definitely in the category of elite goal scorers, and his wicked wrist shot hasn’t dissipated. He gets paid very well for what he does, and for $6.7 million this coming season, we ought to expect no less than another 35-goal, 70-point season from him and hope that he reins in the penalties and stays healthy.
Let’s look at things from Semin’s perspective for a moment. He is in the top-4 in the NHL in terms of pure hockey talent with his stick and vision, but he plays second fiddle to Alex Ovechkin on the Caps as part of a steadily declining Russian delegation. He is one of the best shooters in the league yet has been stuck mostly with sub-par centermen for most of his career, which I laid out in strikingly clear terms last year. That didn’t change this season, either, not until the Caps picked up Jason Arnott at the trade deadline, but even then Arnott missed 9 of 20 games. That George McPhee won’t find a good center for Semin has to be disheartening, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Semin’s best production usually came on a line with #1 center Nicklas Backstrom or with the aged and oft-injured Sergei Fedorov.
While Arnott struggled with injuries, he was an established veteran with a scoring pedigree and a knack for the clutch. In terms of influences, he was the Sturm to Sergei Fedorov’s Drang. Both men are great leaders, but where Fedorov brought a sense of pride in skill and physical preparation to the team in 2008, Arnott played a physical style that matched his crash-bang personality and he demanded accountability from his teammates in a way that only a player who won a championship on team defense can.
When Arnott was put on Semin’s line, Semin immediately responded. Case in point, Arnott posted 4 goals and 7 points in 11 regular season games after his trade from New Jersey. Semin assisted on 3 of his 4 goals (and was on the ice for the other) and they combined to assist on another goal. The trend continued into the playoffs, as Arnott assisted on Semin’s Game 1 overtime game-winner and was on the ice for 2 more. Jason Arnott was eventually dropped to the third line as his nagging injuries kept acting up, but his effect on Semin was apparent. Semin was getting to the net effectively with a big center opening up space for him and he was scoring dirty goals from in close, exactly what the doctor ordered. And don’t be fooled, Semin may not have blown the doors off anyone with his scoring numbers, but he was one of two Capitals to score more than 2 goals in the playoffs this Spring. Ovi had 5, Semin 4, and then Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, and John Carlson each had 2. New additions Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm only had 1 each in 9 games, matching the output of Eric Fehr, John Erskine, and Mike Green.
McPhee figured it out and traded Fehr to Winnipeg and let Arnott (St. Louis) and Sturm (Vancouver) walk in free agency. The other Caps with less than two goals tells the rest of the story of the offseason. Nicklas Backstrom had 2 assists and Karl Alzner 1, but the other goalless Caps were Scott Hannan (Calgary), Boyd Gordon (Phoenix), Matt Bradley (Florida), energy forward Matt Hendricks, and defensemen Jeff Schultz and Sean Collins. This is after George McPhee dumped several goalless players from the 2010 playoffs, including Brendan Morrison, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Belanger, David Steckel, Shaone Morrisonn, Scott Walker, and Tyler Sloan. Also gone from 2010 are Jose Theodore (0 playoff wins in DC) and Joe Corvo (1 goal).
The bottom line here in DC is playoff production. Alexander Semin produces in the playoffs, so he gets rewarded. While it’s true he had only 2 assists in 7 games in the 2010 playoffs, he fired 44 shots on goal, a number that led the Caps and ranked 25th in the NHL playoffs. For comparison, no other player with more than 35 shots played in fewer than 12 games, and big shooter Alex Ovechkin had 34 shots in 7 games. The only other player in the top-65 in shots who played fewer than 11 games was Martin Hanzal (7GP, 29 SOG). I find it hard to believe that Semin didn’t care. I find it much more plausible that he didn’t have anyone capable of getting him the puck in a scoring position and that the Caps, much like this year’s Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, couldn’t figure out the Habs’ penalty kill.
Even when Semin went without a goal in the 2009 playoff series against the Penguins, he still had 6 assists in 7 games (including one that could have easily been his goal that went off Brooks Laich’s knee). He still finished the playoffs with 14 points in 14 games. He still had 15 shots on goal in the series. Oh, and he was playing with a bad wrist he had to freeze before playing. Add in his 8 points in 7 games against the Flyers in 2008.
In the games that matter, Semin comes to play: 4 goals and 10 points in 10 games facing elimination. In Game 3 of the 2009 Quarterfinals, he had 2 goals, including the game-winner, and 3 points in Madison Square Garden to keep the Caps from falling behind 3-0. And while Sergei Fedorov scored the series winner in Game 7, Semin had the Caps first goal in that 2-1 win. Semin also scored the game winning goal in Game 5 in 2008 to keep the Caps from losing the series 4-1. He had an assist in Game 7 against the Habs in 2010.
The Caps have had difficulty winning in the playoffs over the past four seasons because of a lack of centers or being outmatched at center. Do the math,
-2008: Rookie Backstrom and a 38-year old Fedorov against a point-per-game Mike Richards and 29-goal scoring Jeff Carter.
-2009: Backstrom and an even older Fedorov take down Scott Gomez and Brandon Dubinsky but can’t hold up against the 3-headed monster of MVP Sidney Crosby, Smythe-winning Evgeni Malkin, and that other guy, Jordan Staal.
-2010: The Caps were 3-2 when they dressed the closest thing to a #2 center they had in Brendan Morrison, even when he was on the 3rd line, and were 0-2 without him against Gomez and Tomas Plekanec with an injured Backstrom holding things down on his own.
-2011: More of the same, Backstrom, Arnott, and Marcus Johansson take down a mostly center-less Rangers team but can’t stand up to Lecavalier and Stamkos, especially with an injured Arnott on the 3rd line and rookie Johansson showing his age.
Semin has no problem playing through injury, he did it for 3 weeks this season. He has no problem going to the net, just watch some of the games where Mathieu Perreault scored his goals, you’ll see Semin screening the goalie after taking a couple cross-checks to the back. Semin can also snake the puck right off your stick without you knowing. He ranked 26th in takeaways this season with 62 in just 65 games, only Pavel Datsyuk had more in fewer games. In 2009-10, he was 24th with 61 grabs, in 2008-09 he ranked 10th with 73 steals in just 62 games, in 2006-07 he was 19th with 63 takes. Even in an injury-plagued 2007-08 season he posted 40 steals. And yes, Semin’s tenacity and love of taking the puck leads to him taking offensive zone stick fouls. His frustration can sometimes boil over into dumb mistakes, we’ve seen the puck-throwing incident, the bongo fight with Marc Staal, the mindless too many men penalty against Tampa, and we’ve seen his penalty minute totals.
Semin may lack focus, he certainly lacks Ovechkin's body and penchant for physicality, and he probably lacks faith in the management since, barring a major breakout season by Johansson, he remains center-less for yet another upcoming season. But I hardly call that not caring. We’ve seen not caring in Washington, and his name was Jaromir Jagr.