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Posted at 9:58 AM ET, 01/13/2011

What to do with Alex Semin?

By Kareem El-Alaily

An important decision looms in the coming weeks for George McPhee and the Caps: what to do with soon-to-be-free agent Alex Semin? Extend him for multiple years? Extend him for one year? Trade him? All are realistic scenarios for the enigmatic forward with the all-world skills.

Semin has been mired in a horrible slump lately as his scoring has dipped to 0.90 points per game, his lowest per game output since 2007-08. At this point in his career it’s clear that Semin is always going to be a streaky player. Segments of Caps Nation commonly refer to his bi-polar production as Good Sasha/Bad Sasha. We saw Good Sasha in the first part of the season when he carried the team’s offense, producing 31 points in 26 games, including 18 goals. This lured several skeptics, including myself, into falsely thinking that Semin had finally turned the corner and found consistency. Then Bad Sasha paid us a visit. He’s put up four assists in his last 13 games.

I can already sense that the Semin Lobby is gearing up in defense of their beloved Sasha, so let me state that by no means has Semin been awful. On the contrary, his Rating is fourth best on the team, he’s still third on the team in points (despite not having a consistent center) and Bruce has finally increased Semin’s use on the penalty kill. He’s undoubtedly a net positive player for the Caps.

The problem is money. I would be okay with Semin if he was a $4M winger. But he’s not getting paid $4M. He’s getting paid $6M and he’s likely asking for $6M+ annually for multiple years. It’s just too much money.

A long-term Semin extension would potentially take money away from crucial positions that need to be addressed. This summer the Caps will need to re-sign core players such as Brooks Laich, Karl Alzner, Semyon Varlamov and possibly Mike Knuble and/or a second-line center. Next summer they have to re-sign Mike Green, John Carlson and Eric Fehr. In the salary cap era, you simply can’t pay superstar money for a second-line winger (2W). Your 2W is lower on the priority list of what to build a team around, especially when you’ve already tied up $9.5M annually on another winger, Alex Ovechkin. Generational talents like Ovechkin notwithstanding, “top dollar” should be spent on centers, top-4 defensemen and very gifted goalies.

I understand that the Caps can consider extending Semin for one year at $6M and still have the ability to sign most, if not all, of this summer’s key free agents. But there are two other concerns I have with re-signing Semin. First, you can’t squeeze $6M of output out of him unless you match him with a top-notch center. It’s like having a great WR without a solid QB to get him the ball. The problem is that the Caps simply don’t have enough money to re-sign Semin and other key Capital free agents while luring a top free-agent center. Such a scenario, while possible, is unlikely as it would seriously hinder the team's financial flexibility. Second, Semin doesn’t fit the New Caps -- the team that plays system hockey, traps on occasion and back-checks like mad. That’s not Semin’s game and never will be.  What Semin is good at is being a fast-break transition player, one who is able to embarrass teams that lack skill and discipline. The issue is that playoff teams tend to have those traits in abundance, part of the reason why Semin has been unsuccessful in the playoffs.

Semin’s failures last April were no surprise to me. During the Olympic break last year I wrote a post on Japers Rink showing that - through Game 60 of last season - Semin (and Tomas Fleishmann) padded his stats on weaker teams and was not as effective against better teams on the schedule. My overarching concern a year ago is still valid now: Alex Semin is just not built for the rigors of playoff hockey. That was the primary knock on Capitals icon and fan favorite Mike Gartner, and it’s why Gartner was shipped out for Dino Ciccarelli in 1989.

Alex Semin is a dazzling dynamo, a breathtaking combination of skill, speed and hands who can singlehandedly take over games; he is also an oft-injured, streaky, perimeter player who disappears for long stretches and won’t pay the price when the going gets tough. After six seasons of watching him I remain unconvinced that he’ll ever turn the corner and show the grit it takes to become a consistently dominant player, especially in the playoffs. He reminds me of fellow Lada Togliatti alum Alexei Kovalev, another enigmatic hyper-talented skater who has always battled consistency issues. Would you tie up $6M/year for that type of player? I wouldn’t. Teams need to be built around centers and defensemen - not second-line wingers - and that’s where the money should be spent.

I do not advocate jettisoning Semin at the trade deadline simply for the sake of moving him. But if the Caps could trade him as part of a package for a top center, I’d hope George McPhee pulls that trigger in a heartbeat.

Now it’s your turn.

By Kareem El-Alaily  | January 13, 2011; 9:58 AM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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I agree with you fully... With the way we are playing I don't see a cup run this season, unless we turn things around. Team lacks heart and consistency and I hate saying that. All I want is for the Caps to win.. I think we should get something for Semin and not let him go via FA at the end of the year. He would bring back a lot of talent.. The guy has amazing talent I will give him that.. Sometimes it just isn't a fit..

Posted by: CapsBaby | January 13, 2011 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Sadly, I agree with you. I've so enjoyed Sasha as a Capital and really thought he'd turned the corner with a 40 goal season and his excellent start. His curl and drag is possibly the best I've seen.

We need more top-line centers.

Last night the Bolts (who aren't exactly bullies) beat the stuffing out of us. Methinks we need to get tougher.

Posted by: bflorhodes | January 13, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm beginning to think that the smart money is on Semin in the KHL next year and us with nothing to show for it.

Posted by: Chris57 | January 13, 2011 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I dont see the Caps letting him go in FA and not getting something for him, but I am in favor of moving him by the deadline to hopefully get an etablished # center or an established rugged forward who can succeed in the playoffs. My take on Semin has always been that he is what he is, which unfortunately is not a fit for this team. He is not going to change how he plays 6 years into his career. I would not want him moved for draft picks, we have enough players in the pipeline where we need to get an established player back in return for him. One thing I always thought might be in play here is that GMGM is aware that he has two top prospects playing in the KHL whom he hopes to lure here next year in Orlov and Kutz...I am wondering if he isnt holding on to Semin so as to make it just that much more likely that these two will want to come join the Russian party with OV, Varly and Semin. Also I know OV and Sasha are very close so.....hope that doesnt stand in the way of doing what should be done here, which is to send him out and get something worthy in return.

Posted by: opticlguy | January 13, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I think people forget the pre-Great 8 Sasha. This is a guy who wouldn't leave Russia claiming "military obligations" despite a valid contract. The team was on the verge of legal action against him, if I'm not mistaken. Then, lo and behold, when the real Alexander the Great was drafted, Semin had a change of heart. He doesn't bother to learn English so he can't be any kind of contributing teammate (let alone leader). He may be close to AO but I think he is an anchor/security blanket. Let's see AO step up with 28 gone. Signing him for one year was smart. Resigning him for another year not so much. He's playing in the KHL next year I bet, and hope. Trade him for what we can get.

Posted by: B-LeaguerD | January 13, 2011 2:57 PM | Report abuse

It's time to blow it up a lil bit... Semin has nice skills & watching him during the 82 game regular season is a treat, but we have got to get tougher. I have never seen a team so lazy & unwilling to cause havoc in front of the net.

One of the problems I see with the NHL is that they have 2 sets of rules: regular season Hockey & playoff hockey. It's frustrating when you watch your high powered very skilled team get certain penalty calls that go away during the playoffs. NHL changed the rules, but when the playoffs come, it seems they are abandoned & once again players are allowed to interfere, hook, and everything else to slow them down. Here is what the rules stated in 2005-2006 when the rules changed & the Capitals decided to rebuild based on these changes:

The league promises zero tolerance for hooking, holding, tripping, slashing, cross checking and interference. Players who use their stick or free hand to slow any opposing player will be penalized.

Does the NHL seem like a league that has a no tolerance policy? IT'S ALL LIES. Our players get held up all the time & it reduces their ability to use their skills.

But I digress, back to the Caps... After watching them be dominated in 2 games by the TB Lightning, there is definitely a shift in the Caps dominance of the SE Division happening as we speak. The Caps need to adjust their team to the way the game has reverted back to the "OLD RULES" if they want to win the Stanley Cup. This team as it stands will never win with their current make up.

Posted by: tony325 | January 13, 2011 4:06 PM | Report abuse

I don't have a problem with your opinion that dealing away or not bringing Semin back is the way to go. I mean to each his own. But to cite your own 'analysis' from last March as backing up your point of view is a bit much.

I mean come on man, you drew an arbitrary line at 10 good teams and 20 not so good ones I guess. But the two teams that played in the Eastern Conference Finals last year were the 7th and 8th seeds so by your definition not so good teams. But your opinion was that how you played against the 10 good teams was some kind of harbinger of how you would play in the playoffs. I'm sorry but how did that work again?

And really you are going to draw some broad conclusions from a 15 game sample size? What would splitting the league down the middle and then including all but 1 playoff team been too easy? Or would that have resulted in data that did not as easily fit your conclusions? And even that would have left the Habs on the not so good teams list.

And if your 'analysis' was correct in that players who played well against good teams were going to be good playoff players then we should be able to go the other way and show that proven playoff performers played well against the good teams right? But when someone brought up that the playoff proven Pens were 3-10-2 against the good teams and that thus the playoff proven Crosbys, Malkins, Gonchars, and Orpiks weren't getting it done against the good teams you pooh poohed their argument as this only being about the Caps. So this is some kind of Caps' specific statistical 'analysis' you have come up with and it doesn't work for other teams?

Again, I don't have a problem with you thinking they should ditch Semin. I mean the way they are playing these days you could make a decent case for dealing away any of Ovechkin, Backstrom, or Semin and given his contract situation Semin would make the most sense if that is the route taken. But let your argument stand on it's own merit and don't try to back it up with some pretend analysis that doesn't even come close to holding water if anyone looks even an inch below the surface.

Oh and if 24 points in 28 games for an offensive winger means 'unsuccessful in the playoffs' then the Hall of Fame is full of unsuccessful playoff performers...

Posted by: Ajax95 | January 13, 2011 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Last year's post wasn't meant to be a thesis-level analysis with 95% confidence intervals. They were numbers I put together to identify trends concerning player performance against good vs bad teams. Sure, sample size was small. But (during testing of the model) when I changed the designations of border-line teams it didn't move players up or down significantly in terms of rank, meaning the sample size was relatively sufficent. Like it or not, Semin was always a bottom-third performer in this analysis.

If I had ample time I would go round out the model for the last 20 games of last season. But it's a painful process that I don't have time for. However...

I was able to slice and dice some of Semin's basic 2009-10 stats in case you still don't buy the original conclusions around Semin. In 20 games against teams ranked 2-11 in the regular season Semin put up 14 points and was +4. That's a 0.70 ppg average. In 53 games against remaining competition he put up 70 points and was +32. That's a 1.32 ppg pace. This quick-and-dirty test confirms that there is validity to the argument that Semin feasted on weaker teams, as 0.62 ppg is a significant delta. For comparison purposes Ovechkin's delta was only 0.05 ppg between good and bad competition.

The post on Japers was meant to spur thinking and challenge those that automatically assumed that star players could be counted on against all types of competition (Ovi - yes, Semin - no). Some readers took that away. Some didn't and spent their time trying to tie up the validity of the analysis based on the "sample size" technicality while conveniently avoiding discussion of the conclusions, one of which was to not count on Good Sasha for the playoffs. Shame on me for suggesting it.


Posted by: topshelf_22304 | January 14, 2011 12:11 AM | Report abuse

First, let me say I'm a big Sasha watching him play (when he actually shows up). I too thought he'd turned the corner this year and would battle every night, but sadly we only see that side of him once every 10-12 games. When he does, he can dominate games. I wish there was some way to keep him at around $4mil but that aint happening.

I also disagree slightly with the dominate center scenario. No doubt, big supremely talented centers should be a primary focus of acquisition, but that's not always possible. A very disciplined and talented winger can work wonders with a center that's very good but possibly not great. I'd love to see someone like Zach Parise here to work with Johansson.

Soooo, my fantasy trade scenario is to see Semin flipped for draft picks and whatever else it might take to get Parise from the Devils (I know he's a free agent this summer and he's injured but he may be an excellent fit). That could make for a talented and responsible second line.

Posted by: BrashKnuckles | January 14, 2011 11:22 AM | Report abuse

That is all well and good but amongst my other points is that there aren't just 10 good teams each year as the performance of the Habs, the team with the 19th best regular season record last year, in the playoffs shows. It isn't 1987 anymore, if you make the playoffs almost by definition you are a good team.

I mean the premise of that post was that playing well against the top 10 teams meant that he was a clutch player and thus could be expected to play well in the playoffs right? But using last years final standings are you really saying that performing well against Colorado, Ottawa, Boston, St. Louis, Calgary, Anaheim, Philly, Montreal, and Dallas, all teams with 88 or more points, was feasting on the weak and not relatable to the types of teams they would face in the playoffs?

I guess that is my biggest question, why only 10 good teams? Where did that come from and why in your opinion is it accurate to split the league into 10 good ones and 20 bad ones when deciding when regular season performance is predictive of playoff performance and when it it not?

Posted by: Ajax95 | January 18, 2011 9:02 AM | Report abuse

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