Keep him and you again fill a top 6 roster spot with promise, petulance, and perimeter play. And probably 32-38 goals. Deal him and you perhaps remove a stain of softness and infuriating inconsistency. You’d also afford yourself nearly $7 of salary cap space.
But can you deal Alexander Semin? Practically speaking, is there any semblance of a market for this enigma? He’s got one year left on his contract before arriving at unrestricted free agency, at a more than healthy cap hit, and why in the world would Washington’s Semin haters imagine that his flaws and shortcomings aren’t well known around the league? And then there’s this: He isn’t exactly a compelling personality around which you market hockey in your market; his refusal to speak virtually any English poses something of a PR challenge, wouldn’t you say? Obviously Semin’s skills and stats and salary matter most in any discussion of a trade, but today’s NHL managers take pains to assess hockey players’ character as well. Do you imagine Semin’s market value enhanced from this vantage?
What do you imagine another manager coughing up to acquire potentially just a single season’s services from one of hockey’s most inconsistent performers? And: what do you imagine George McPhee expecting in a return?
The Siberian is capable of awe-inspiring magical wizardry on a sheet of ice, without question. We’ve all seen it. Ten percent of his legerdemain is beautiful displays of jaw-dropping brilliance — moments when you’re reminded that no. 28 is authentically and irrefutably one of the most talented hockey players on the planet. His talents don’t flower on many rosters. But the other 90 percent is another trick, one that often rouses screams of frustration from the spectator and red-faced death-glares from his coach. This latter quality is the disappearing act—and Alexander Valerievich Semin is a master magician at both inspiring awe and soliciting rage.
Neil Greenberg from Russian Machine Never Breaks offers what I believe is a compelling big-picture assessment of Semin in today’s Washington Post. Five straight seasons of 25-plus goals from Semin’s stick, Greenberg points out. Moreover, dealing him invites an unhealthy checking chokehold on the Capitals’ top line. Greenberg:
“Fans only have to look at Semin’s ill-timed offensive zone stick penalties, chronic injuries or perceived scoring inconsistencies to be reminded how he has negatively impacted the Washington franchise. Despite these shortcomings, Semin holds the key for Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to have any hope at a statistical bounce-back next season, because beyond them, the rest of the Washington roster is not made up of proven scorers.”
Year after year Capitals management re-ups its most puzzling asset and year after year the player’s Sisyphean efforts get the best of this organization in the playoffs. However, it may not be all his fault.
This newly refashioned Washington team is exceptional and would, most likely, make the playoffs with or without the other Alex. The league has proven that positional depth is what will make or break a team in the playoffs, and those three players are, along with the rest of the roster, more than capable of rising to the occasion, a la Sean Bergenheim did for Tampa Bay this past spring.
But genuine elite talents are hot and rare commodities, and in the NHL, the few managers who possess them build around them. There is so much parity in the contemporary NHL that difference-makers . . . often make the difference. Either George McPhee and the rest of the hockey world is hypnotized by Semin’s spells, or perhaps he really is as good as we all opine but has never had his second line supporting cast to consistently perform. He’s forced to do a lot of the skating with the puck because there is no one in the mold of Nicklas Backstrom with whom he’s ever been able to play a whole season. He’s faster than a lot of defensemen, but can’t get by a Zdeno Chara by himself. If he is as good as everyone believes, it’s bewildering that the Caps have not been able to attract, let alone contract, the high caliber center he needs to prosper.
First, there was almost Sergei Fedorov, a 40-year-old who brought leadership to the dressing room and clutch skill against the Rangers in 2009. Then, Brendan Morrison, who was at his best over a decade ago in Vancouver with Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund, turned up in summer 2008. Eric Belanger, largely a defensive forward, arrived in 2009. This past season, it was Tomas Fleischmann (really?) and greybeard Jason Arnott, another player who could have been perfect . . . 10 years ago.
If the Caps keep betting on Semin, they would have been wise to throw all the chips in the pot and acquire a high scoring, two way center in the mold of Tim Connolly this free agency. Instead, it appears we could again see second line center by committee in 2011-12,with Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson and perhaps even Mathieu Perreault auditioning down the middle in the top 6. It’s a gamble.
It’s difficult to think of a more naturally technically gifted player other than Sidney Crosby, but Semin might be that star. There are teams that perhaps covet his skill and perhaps have come knocking at Kettler’s door for his services in years past. Maybe. But now?
If there was ever a time to cash in on Semin, just after the 2010 playoffs was it. His trade value was still at full mast as he had just scored 40 goals, and a non-playoff team would perhaps have gladly overpaid with a top six forward and perhaps a high second round draft pick just to have half a chance at an eighth seed the next season. Additionally, Semin’s contract status was as a restricted free agent before July 1st this year, meaning a team may have been more enticed by the prospect of signing him to the long term or at least being compensated if they didn’t want to keep him. In the current trade market, rebuilding teams will be content waiting until July 1, 2012, knowing they can have him for free instead of giving up assets now. Additionally, now that the 2011 draft is over, the relatively stronger 2012 draft class is full of talent that will further dilute Semin’s appeal.
A Milbury-esque GM might still snap no. 28 up in the next few months if it’s an offer that cannot be refused. What is shocking is that a very talented and well-respected general manager like George McPhee has straddled the fence for so long, instead of either:
- Pulling the trigger on a deal that would have rid the Caps of its supposed problem, or
- Acquiring a linemate to complement Semin’s skill-set and speed.
Instead, the Caps second line is stuck in limbo.
What no one wants to see is another year of pushing a rock up a mountain and praying it will stay up there.