We’ve got some history with Alex Semin.
In Oct. 2008, this blog was roughly six months old. Dmitry Chesnokov sat down with Semin at a sushi joint in Washington, D.C., covering a wide range of topics. One of them was the Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby rivalry, which was still on everyone’s lips but had yet to be shoved down our throats.
As Dmitry does, he got Semin talking candidly, and the Washington Capitals winger said of his Pittsburgh Penguins rival:
“What's so special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there.”
In the years since, that quote’s taken on a “play it again Sam” misrepresentation, with many people remembering Semin calling Crosby “a piece of dead wood” but he didn’t directly say that. But he said enough, and that firestorm was a breakthrough moment for this blog. It was also the moment when, having covered Semin with the Capitals for a few years, I realized there was so much more there than what we’d seen from him.
But then, that’s basically the epitaph on the tombstone for his NHL career.
Semin was waived by the Montreal Canadiens this week, refused to play in the AHL and then was placed on unconditional waivers. No one in the NHL wanted a piece of this player, even at bargain basement prices, and so now it appears he’s headed to Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL for the rest of the season.
In three decades of watching hockey, Semin probably ranks among the top five most gifted players I’ve seen in the NHL. An ungodly wrist shot, especially off the rush. Great hands. Speed that could cover all parts of the ice, especially on the backcheck.
When Semin would, you know, backcheck.
His best season in the league was in 2009-10: 40 goals, 44 assists, a plus-36 and 30 of those goals coming at even strength. Like nearly everything else about that Capitals team under Bruce Boudreau, however, Semin is part of the great “WHAT IF?” In his case, it’s “what if Alex Semin hadn’t gone seven games without a goal despite 44 shots on net, and the Capitals had survived the Montreal upset bid, and they didn’t then question everything that had worked for the team under Boudreau, sending this group into a multi-year mire of confusion and diminishing returns?”
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Semin never cracked 30 goals against after that, eventually getting jettisoned by the Capitals and signing a one-year, $7-million “show me” contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. He showed them 30 points playing with Eric Staal, and they showed him a 5-year contract. Carolina gets a lot of grief for this deal, which it’s since bought out, but that’s excusing Semin’s stunning regression as an offensive weapon: His points per game went from 1.00 to 0.65, the lowest of his career since his rookie season, in his second year in Carolina; then, in 2014-15, he averaged 0.33 points per game.
That was the end of that, and Semin found a new landing spot in Montreal with Michel Therrien, and we all saw how that went.
As I’ve said before: “Enigma” is a slur for Russian players. Except in this case. In this case, it’s completely applicable.
Here’s a player that has 40-goal talent, and only reached that mark once. Here’s a player that can go weeks without a goal, but do seemingly everything else right from a possession standpoint – Semin was the posterboy for being both a statistical pariah and analytical Messiah.
So when you read articles about how the entire NHL is dumb for not picking up Semin for peanuts, it’s hard to argue against it. He’s a singular talent with tantalizing upside; a player who, based on the fancy stats, isn’t a liability even when he’s not contributing offensively; and remains a player who seems one good linemate and one understanding coach away from getting back to that point-per-game basis.
And yet … everyone stayed away, and he’s in the KHL.
You heard all kinds of reasoning for Semin never being able to put it together in the NHL on a consistent basis. My podcasting partner Jeff Marek believes he’s trained incorrectly throughout his career. My old friends at the Capitals would spin tales about his temperament, and how sensitive he was away from the rink. Still others see it as a work ethic issue.
Who knows what it was? That’s why they’re called enigmas. What we do know is that he’ll torch the KHL, someone in the NHL would buy back in based on that promise, and we’ll be back talking about the resurgence of Alex Semin in one second and the disappearance of Alex Semin the next. Because few players have that level of talent to squander.