Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Tao of Alex (Semin)

Alexander Semin has got to be one of the most frustrating players in the NHL to coach: he's got the talent to put pucks in the net and win games for your team and he's got the speed and agility to burn any defender in the league yet seems to display this talent selectively. He has the pace, shiftiness and attitude to draw penalties but is as likely as anyone in the league to negate an upcoming powerplay because he's so apt to retaliate. The puck seems to find its way to him in the offensive zone yet he so often looks lost in his own end. On nights when Semin's creating scoring chances out of nothing or seems to have the puck on a string his two-year, $9.2 million contract seems like a bargain; when he's taking undisciplined penalties or turning the puck over because he tries to do too much, you couldn't blame a Capitals fan for wishing that general manager George McPhee had dealt Semin to a team that had seen him on one of his better nights and was willing to give up a rugged defenseman.

It doesn't help Semin's image that his inconsistencies and frustrations don't end on the ice. Semin is rarely quoted in North American media due in part to his quiet nature but also do in part to his reportedly limited command of English, making it difficult for the winger to make amends with the Capitals fan base after episodes that hurt their collective opinion of him, such as his refusal to play for the Capitals AHL affiliate during the NHL's lockout, saying he could not develop any more in the AHL, missing a team flight late (and the subsequent game) in his rookie season and insisting he needed to stay in Russia to fulfill his military obligations, an excuse that is much less dubious than it sounds (Russia considers the mandatory two years of military service to be completed if a man is playing professional hockey for a Russia professional team near his hometown). However these episodes, coupled with Semin's on-ice behavior have lead to him being branded with a term that's been applied previously (and not in a reverential sense) to many highly skilled Russian players: "enigmatic".

It's hard to determine to what extent to fault the Capitals for allowing Semin to carry on this persona as long as he has. On the one hand it would seem a good idea to try and break a player of habits such as frustration penalties and lazy defensive player early in his career; on the other hand Semin is a naturally recalcitrant person and trying to make the adjustment to a new language, culture and country is a challenge for almost anyone, especially a 20 year old whose job consists of trying to perform at a high level in front of up to twenty thousand fans.

Given that Semin was a 20-year-old rookie in a new country with an unfamiliar language in 2003-04 and the Capitals had no delusions of competing for a playoff spot in 2006-07, it may have been best for Semin's development that the team kept him on a relatively long leash and let him get comfortable in Washington and in the NHL, even if it meant having to endure undisciplined penalties or plays where Semin would hold the puck too long. But that's no longer the case, for Semin or for the Capitals. The team is no longer in a purely rebuilding stage and was expected to contend for a playoff spot from the get-go in 2007-08 and Semin is no longer just a flashy youngster with a lot of offensive upside, but a player who scored 38 goals in a season and is counted on to lead the Capitals secondary scoring. What this means, in short, is that it's no longer acceptable for Semin to put himself ahead of the team by taking selfish penalties or playing lazy defense.

Semin's improved play of late has largely quited the contingent of fans that wanted to see him out the door, which is a good thing since Semin isn't going anywhere until at least 2009. While the size and length of Semin's extension are both reasonable, George McPhee still won't pull the trigger on a deal to offload Semin any time soon for two reasons. One is that any other team would view the trade with suspicion - a team offering a player who had previously scored 38 goals in a season and who had signed an extension that had not yet kicked in would be bound to raise a few eyebrows (and drive down the price in the process). The other reason is that trading a player before their extension kicked in could easily create an air of distrust amongst Capitals players towards the team's management - any player up for an extension would be distrustful of management and wonder if they, like Semin, could be traded before the extension even kicked in.

Bruce Boudreau does have a reputation as being both a very strong motivator and unwilling to accept lazy or selfish play, so there is a good chance he will be able to get Semin to change his ways for the long term. The Capitals would be wise to give Boudreau at least a year (especially since he started as a mis-season replacement), and if Semin hasn't show improvement by the end of the 2008 calender year, it may be time to show him the door before his stock drops too much.

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