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Statistical analysis: Should Alexander Semin stay on the top line?

By Neil Greenberg
Statistical analysis

The Washington Capitals' top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble has arguably been one of the better line combos in hockey. But with Knuble struggling to keep a 30-point pace this season, Coach Bruce Boudreau once again turned to Alexander Semin to provide a much-needed spark to one of the NHL's most potent offenses. How long should Semin get to stay on the top line?

Boudreau ended the Sasha Reunion Tour with about 7 minutes left in the third period of Washington's 5-3 win over Boston, so we don't have a lot of data on how the Semin-Backstrom-Ovechkin line compares to the Knuble variant this season. With only 13 games played, however, their individual performances show that the Caps score twice as frequently at even strength with Semin on the ice than Knuble. This despite playing against similar competition and Knuble having the luxury of Ovechkin and Backstrom as linemates more than two-thirds of the time:

2010-11 5v5 TOI On-ice shooting % Corsi%
Semin 164.6 11.2% 56.5%
Knuble 168.4 5.4% 51.5%
Corsi percentage is the percentage of pucks directed at the opposition out of all pucks shot toward either net. On-ice shooting percentage is goals scored as a percentage of shots taken when that player is on the ice. All data is 5v5.

The "Semin-effect" was indeed present last year as well, where he was clearly the best fit for the Dynamic Duo. The trio with Semin scored more often with roughly the same amount of pucks in play than when Knuble completed the threesome:

Line Combo (2009-10) On-ice shooting % Corsi%
Semin/Backstrom/Ovi 14.80% 60.0%
Knuble/Backstrom/Ovi 9.20% 57.8%

In fact, Semin improved the individual play of other key forwards - both in terms of puck possession (as measured by Corsi percentage) and shooting efficiency:

Player No. Sh% with Semin Corsi% with Semin Sh% without Semin Corsi% without Semin Sh% with Knuble Corsi% with Knuble Sh% without Knuble Corsi% without Knuble
8 12.8% 60.5% 10.7% 56.2% 10.1% 57.1% 12.7% 57.8%
14 12.7% 47.9% 9.7% 51.3% 9.3% 52.6% 11.2% 49.3%
19 13.4% 57.7% 10.4% 55.4% 9.9% 56.5% 13.0% 56.0%
21 11.3% 52.3% 8.2% 49.1% 9.8% 49.7% 10.0% 51.1%

Across the board, the numbers were better with Semin than with Knuble -- even hinting that playing with Knuble, despite last year's 53 points and NHL second best 19.2 shooting percentage, hurt them more than helped. This year seems no different. Taking Semin away from Tomas Fleischmann and Brooks Laich, who have only two goals in the last eight games, would curb the second line's scoring ability. Knuble's similar style of play to Laich makes it difficult for them to get any sort of chemistry to help with the shortfall. Both these limitations make Boudreau's ability to keep the Semin-Backstrom-Ovechkin line intact difficult at best. But he should.

Neil Greenberg also writes for Russian Machine Never Breaks. You can follow him on Twitter here.

By Neil Greenberg  | November 7, 2010; 8:48 AM ET
Categories:  Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Statistical analysis  
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Next: Preparing for the Philadelphia Flyers


I think that it is a great experiment to do every once in a while with the chemistry they have together, but you need the depth so that you have multiple scoring lines. YOu do not want teams just focusing on the top line. Semin is playing like a man possessed this year. He is playing hard and cutting down to only one hooking/tripping penalty a game and scoring when needed. We need a wing that can go to the net and get dirty like Knuble used to do. That is why we brought him here and he needs to get back to that type of game. That is his bread and butter. Semin, Ovi and Backstrom are all about pretty plays and set up. Knuble is not truly that way. If we can get Knuble to focus and channel some of John Druce, we may have that spark we had last year.

Posted by: Hunter21 | November 7, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Here it is game day and this is what we get for a blog update.

Disappointing to say the least.

Sorry in advance.

Posted by: rblatch45 | November 7, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse


Druce was only good for one playoff series. (He says people in the Garden still heckle him all these years later. Which I love.) Langway called him a "nervous toad". Mike Green there is a lesson there !

The Flyers knew what they were losing when they didn't protect Knuble. Let's hope he returns to form for the playoffs. Lord knows this team needs UGLY Flyers -like goals, because this pretty stuff never finds the back of the net in the playoffs.
We'll get "game planned" by another veteran coach and exit early if BB thinks these "6 passes and an open shot goal" will work in the playoffs.

Shots "on net" need to deflect off big bodies (Fehr, Knuble ,Laich) and into the net to win 16 games in the playoffs.

Every time Carlson and Green load up somebody needs to be moving into the goalie's line of sight. A deflected puck off a hip or stick would have turned the entire Habs series.

That's how we beat Hasek (The best ever).
Will this team pay that price ? Stecks will not. That's why he should be sent to Hershey. Let's see if MP, MJ, AND EAKIN will playoff hockey NOW. Stecks spends too much time looking for his diaper.(Sorry, that may have been low class, but I can't watch his wimpy play anymore!!!)

Posted by: Hunterforcoach | November 7, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

This would NOT be an issue if we had a acquired a true #2C with toughness ala Umberger or Lombardi. Once again, too many snipers and not enough tanks.

Re: other thread, I can't believe people call out BB for yanking Neuvy. Every goalie in NHL history has been pulled. Neuvy is young and has been overused. Hope he sits today to get some rest. It's game #14 out of 82+, no time to wear anyone out. That includes let's avoid the 30 minute games for Green. And, when Poti returns, ease him in 15-18 mins. Always in the past Poti would come back from groin w/too many mins.

Posted by: tominsocal1 | November 7, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the sentiment to send Steckel to Hershey. His only real value the last several years was his uncanny face-off ability. But, this year he hasn't been winning face-offs. The rest of his game is a huge liability to the team.

Posted by: ccCapsfan | November 7, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Stats are nice but how is the "too cute" factor rolled into them. Where Semin plays is up to Bruce. Who knows how he makes that determination. On some night, it appear like he spins the wheel of fortune for his lines and Semin plays with whoever's numbers comes up. What I really hope for is a true second line center who makes Semin better, not someone who he makes better.

Posted by: NovaCath1 | November 7, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

mike knuble is a terrific guy. he's bloody awesome on the penalty kill. he's tough and he's mean when he needs to be. he's crafty and creative. there is definitely a place on this team for a veteran guy who has so much he can teach our younger players about hockey.

however, expecting mike knuble to keep up with nick and alex on the first line night after night is just wishful thinking, and pretty agonozing to watch.

Posted by: 33spinner | November 7, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

I don't see why it has to be all or nothing. When Knuble is on the top line he gets nearly 20 minutes a game. That's way too much for a 38 year old that seemed gassed last year. If Bruce insists that Knuble play on the top line, he should get 11-12 minutes per game (PK and PP included) and let Semin take the rest.

Posted by: ablake70 | November 7, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

@ NovaCath1

"Too cute" is Bruce for "Oh crap, the other lines aren't scoring. I need to make an adjustment". BB is always looking to break that line apart because he knows the Caps scoring "depth" is mostly smoke and mirrors. SOB isn't the only line that makes the no look passes, the drop passes to no one, or tries to get "too fancy".

Posted by: ablake70 | November 7, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

How's the talent? Good stuff overall, but you realize the limitations you reference are the exact reasons why we don't see more Ovy/Backs/Semin.

The fundamental question isn't, "which line performs better - Ovy/Backs/Knuble or Ovy/Backs/Semin"?

It's, which set of 2 lines performs better?

And Ovy/Backs/Knuble + Semin/Flash/Laich probably performs better as a 2-line tandem than Ovy/Backs/Semin + Knuble/Laich/Flash.

If you can show otherwise - then BB will Semin it up on the first line all season long.

Go Caps! Flyers are trash :)

Posted by: CF11555 | November 7, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

@ HunterforCoach

I agree with you about Druce. He was fun to watch for that series. One and done... Seems like we have had a lot of those over the years :)

Knuble is a talent and I agree with most others that it has to be hard to keep up with the "Young Guns" night after night.

I did like the fact that this articles shows that Semin does have value to this team... even though others may not agree.

My fear with all of this is that the lines are going to be juggled all year and we will have no chemistry except for one line. We saw that last year and I am worried that it may happen again this year. I know it is early, but BB should try to keep some consistency going this year with that second line.

Posted by: Hunter21 | November 7, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Semin and Ovie get too chummy on the same line. It is nice to put them together once in a while but it can never be a long term solution.

Posted by: capscoach | November 7, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

As always, there are limitations in statistical analysis, but it seems that every time an analysis is done involving Semin (whether offensive production, plus-minus, or PK effectiveness), he comes out at or near the top. But he's not physical enough to please some, and he doesn't have witty comments for reporters. So he is widely viewed as a pu**y, "enigmatic," or a head case. For me its enough that good things generally happen when he is on the ice and that he will more than occasionally make a play with the puck that is f-ing mind-boggling.

Posted by: zmega | November 7, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: philarmy | November 7, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Please go away spammer.

Semin's been the best forward on the ice this season. Backstrom, on the other hand, is not only my favorite player but he's coming up way short. Whether he's hurt or out of shape, something's got to change.

Right now our top line needs Semin because our top line is not living up to its rep as among the best lines in hockey.

Posted by: Justafan | November 7, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Here it is game day and this is what we get for a blog update.

Disappointing to say the least.

Sorry in advance.

Posted by: rblatch45 | November 7, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

geez, tough crowd here.

Posted by: Justafan | November 7, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

I could care less until April. I could care less if Backstrom puts up half the points as last year, as long as he is in top form come April. I dont care what Semin does until it's playoff time......

Being the best all year doesnt mean squat as we know. Tonight we play the Flyers, one of the biggest dissapointments last year that barely got into the playoffs...and guess what...they raised an East Champs banner...go figure..

Enjoy the ride folks..this is all just a warm-up for the playoffs.

Posted by: SA-Town | November 7, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

The Oilers could have put Messier on the same line with Gretzky and Kurri but they didn't after their first season together.

Idealy you wanna spread the wealth and put these guys on separate lines on a regular basis.

Posted by: joek443 | November 7, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I really need to stop reading these because they just aggravate me.

First any statistician that draws conclusions from a 13 game sample should be drawn and quartered but lets ignore that and assume that all of this is actually correct. Even given that assumption which can't be proven IMHO how the hell do you get "Boudreau's ability to keep the Semin-Backstrom-Ovechkin line intact difficult at best. But he should."

I'm going to concede to you that Semin-Backstrom-Ovechkin will score more than Knuble-Backstrom-Ovechkin but that's not even the correct question. The question which isn't even asked let alone answered is "What 2 lines score more: SBO and Knuble-Flash-Laich or KBO and Semin-Flash-Laich?" Because you know those goals scored by the 2nd line count just a much.

Unless you can demonstrate that SBO scores so much more than KBO that it more than makes up for a drop in 2nd line production you really don't have much of a claim to any conclusions like BB should keep Semin on the top line as much as he can.

Posted by: psujohn | November 7, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

If anything Semin, Ovi and Backs learn to play on THREE separate lines on a regular basis during the season because that will make this team harder to defend in the playoffs.

But as we all know BB only coaches from game to game.

Posted by: joek443 | November 7, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse


I don't know what's up with Backy either. Hurt ? Or, does he realize that max effort is only for the playoffs. Or, does he realize that BB's system won't win a cUp after watching how the playoffs panned out last year for the Hawks and Flyers. We need to play like those two teams did last year, or early exit. Unfortunately, the "haters" as we're called don't think half of this team can play like those two finalists from last year. Thus, our dislike for GMGM first, and BB second for not demanding a playoff hockey effort.

The fact that Stecks is still on this team just magnifies the fact that GMGM and BB don't get it. MP would do well in the playoffs on hustle alone. Watching the mismanagement of this team after all of those "Abe" years is getting depressing. But they're my team. I'll hope for the best. Go Caps!!

Posted by: Hunterforcoach | November 7, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

DUH! I am not a statistician but I have been saying the same for quite some time. The Semin, Backs, OV line should - and it does - produce more than the two lines if they were to be separated. The myth that spreading the talent is better is one of the biggest fallacies floating around this blog. e.g. Charra is more effective when playing against ov and semin one at a time, he can not handle both at the same time. Did anyone notice on the last game that the double team on OV and the double team on Semin left Green with a wide open shot for a goal. Semin didn’t get an assist but there was no doubt his presence was felt.
As for someone’s comment that BB coaches from game to game, well, I hope he does. I don’t agree with the way BB has handled Semin (and other things), but I do recognize that the guy’s record as a coach. And yes, he should prepare for each opponent differently, after all, they are facing different teams, players, strategies, etc. etc., you wouldn’t expect him to be the same for every game, do you?

Posted by: hock1 | November 7, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

As for someone’s comment that BB coaches from game to game, well, I hope he does.

The guy has NO long term vision. All he wants to do is win every game and as long as they win he really doesn't care how.

How has that philosophy worked in the playoffs so far?? That a win is a win and it covers up all their flaws as long as they win??

Posted by: joek443 | November 7, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

The Oilers could have put Messier on the same line with Gretzky and Kurri but they didn't after their first season together.

True but they also had guys like Esa Tikkannen and Glenn Anderson to throw out there, Knuble's a great guy but he's nowhere near guys like that in terms of ability. He was never quick and now seems to have lost a step, and his hands have gotten even worse - he simply should not be playing 20+ mins per game. Ovi and Backs go against the likes of Chara, Markov, Kronwall, Edler, Prongerthedbagg etc. every game; it's a heavy enough lift without an anchor on the right side.

As for Steckel, the guy has zero offensive ability [I'm not even talking hands, he's slow and barely completes two passes a game - as a center] and yet has - by far - the worst +/- on the team.

This is getting old, BB - I could really care less that Stecks scored a "really sweet goal" for the Manchester Monarchs 5 years ago. He clearly can't do it at the NHL level, yet struggles in his own zone. Baffling. So glad we just sent a promising 20 yr old with oodles of talent down and kept this guy around.

Posted by: govtimbo | November 7, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Anybody notice that Semin is going to the net and actually screening this year? Now, THAT will help us in the playoffs! Semin is backchecking, playing on the PK, screening the goalie and going to the net. He is currently the BEST player on the Caps (yes, better than Ovie). I wasn't a huge Semin fan before and I was willing to see him go UFA next year. But, now I'm totally on the Semin bandwagon. Go 28 and go Caps!

Posted by: chriscaps | November 7, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Agree with psujohn about his point about sample size and making the proper comparison, and with hock1 re it might be good to overload the first line against teams like the Bruins who have a player that is capable of mostly shutting down Ovechkin.

I think, if chemistry were not an issue, it would be best sometimes to put Semin on the top line to overwhelm certain opponents, and sometimes to put him on another line.

The problems with that are predicting in advance which opponents are which, and chemistry. There's probably, all other things being equal, going to be an extra benefit to keeping the same players on the top line all year, or longer. But that extra benefit isn't always going to outweigh the benefits of switching based on matchup--that too depends on the matchup.

If I have to pick Semin usually on the top line or Knuble usually on the front line, my gut tells me to take my chances with Semin on the top line and attempt to overwhelm opponents. What happens if the other lines rarely score? Even if they don't, will it really matter? Against most teams I don't think it will. And the longer they play together at even strength, the more overwhelming they will get, because of the effects of chemistry.

Also, if you're not going to go with Semin, Ovie, and Backstrom, sometimes I wonder whether it might not be better to have Backstrom and Semin playing together and let Ovechkin do his thing with, well, anyone else. Ovechkin just seems like the kind of player who will find a way to get his goals no matter who he's playing with. But I might be totally wrong about that. I haven't seen Ovie without Backstrom much and definitely haven't statistically analyzed his performance without Backstrom or anything. And then there are all the years of prior investments in the Ovechkin - Backstrom chemistry to consider.

But I think the best of all possible worlds would be a top line of Semin Ovie and Backstrom against just about every opponent. I think if I had to bet my life on one game against a random opponent, I'd definitely be going with that line and hoping that they overwhelm the opponent, get a few goals, and that my other lines are decent enough to not give up the lead, kind of like what happened in Calgary the other night.

Posted by: youaresquishy | November 8, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I think especially in road games where getting the matchups you want is more difficult it may be especially beneficial to put Semin with Ovie and Backstrom to attempt to overwhelm whichever combination of players the opponent wants to attempt to defend against them. I wouldn't think it weird to use that top line in every road game and to maybe demote Semin in some of the games at home.

Posted by: youaresquishy | November 8, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

The Caps should go with their back up coach. The starter looks tired and in way over his head. Or, Bruce being Bruce... just lazy and unable to show up for 60 minutes a game, night after night.

Posted by: capscapscaps2 | November 8, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

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