Last summer, George McPhee decided it was time to part ways with Alexander Semin, the skilled winger he had drafted 10 years earlier. It wasn’t an easy call, the general manager admitted, but it became clear that the Washington Capitals’ journey with Semin had run its course.
“Team chemistry and numbers,” McPhee said in January, when asked why he chose not to bring back the player who finished second in goals on the Capitals every year since the 2006-07 season.
“You have to do what you think is best for the team,” McPhee said, “and you have to listen to your players.”
On Tuesday night, Semin returns to Verizon Center for the first time as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, who signed him to a one-year, $7 million contract in late July.
There may be no more polarizing a player to have suited up for the Capitals in the last decade, as evidenced by his former teammates’ varied comments about him. But while Semin’s legacy in Washington is a complicated one, he appears to have found a fresh start with the Southeast Division leading Hurricanes.
Semin’s talent was never questioned during his 469 career games in Washington as he recorded 197 goals and 408 points, good for fifth and 14th best in franchise history. His presence in the lineup, along with fellow Russian and close friend Alex Ovechkin, gave the Capitals pure goal scorers on the first and second lines — something they’re now missing, even though they’ve made up for his absence with increased production from role players.
But his offensive execution was inconsistent and unpredictable, traits that when combined with a penchant for unnecessary stick penalties and a lack of defensive commitment drew criticism from outsiders and former teammates. In the summer of 2011, former Capital Matt Bradley questioned Semin’s drive during a radio interview and said that he “just doesn’t care.” On Monday, Troy Brouwer became the latest to call out the Russian winger.
“It was tough to lose his scoring ability, when he wanted to play,” Brouwer said. “Some nights you didn’t even know if he was gonna come to the rink. It’s tough to play alongside guys like those, because you don’t know what you’re gonna get out of ’em.”
Carolina’s top brass were well aware of the Russian winger’s reputation when they were considering him to fill a void on their roster. The Hurricanes wanted to add an elite winger who could play alongside captain Eric Staal and, according to Coach Kirk Muller, they were “willing to take the chance to see if this guy wants to fit in.”
Through the first 17 games with the Hurricanes, Semin has four goals, 10 assists and is averaging 20 minutes 49 seconds per night playing primarily on the top line with Staal and Jiri Tlusty. The transition has gone well so far, but Muller said that he and Semin are still in the early stages of establishing a foundation of trust.
“He wanted to prove to himself and to other people what kind of player he wants to be,” Muller said in a phone interview. Muller told Semin from the start that while he would play with Staal and see plenty of power-play time, he would have to earn additional responsibility.
“Anything after that depends on how you commit to the game, whether you become a regular penalty killer or are out there late at the end of the game when we’re up a goal,” Muller explained. “That’s what you have to prove to me you can handle. It’s just building the relationship right now, getting the trust factor. It’s been good so far.”
Staal admitted he didn’t know what to expect from his newest teammate, but after playing together for a month, the four-time all-star center praised Semin’s competitive drive and said he’s meshed well within Carolina’s dressing room, which has been built around a blue-collar work ethic.
Staal, who has recorded nine goals and 10 assists in 17 games, is also quite happy to have someone with Semin’s talent level and instincts skating next to him.
“He just thinks the game on an elite level,” Staal said in a phone interview. “I feel like both of our minds are thinking similar things when we’re out there. It’s resulting in good offensive chances and then also good defensive work. He’s been great at both ends of the rink and we’re continuing to develop chemistry together. . . . He’s a smart hockey player, he knows the game, he wants to win and he’s doing what he has to do to be effective for our group.”
Staal is far from the first player to enjoy working on a line with Semin. Although they didn’t skate together consistently, Semin and Ovechkin were never more of an intimidating offensive presence than when they were combined on one unit.
The two remain close friends and speak weekly, according to Ovechkin, who planned to catch up with his compatriot over dinner Monday night. While Ovechkin would have liked to see Semin stay with the Capitals, he’s not surprised to see him off to a good start with Carolina.
“He’s great player, good guy, but it’s a business. Sometimes it’s not your decision to keep the players,” Ovechkin said, adding that it’s likely Semin will be eager to perform well in his first trip to Washington. “Probably, yeah. He just want to show up and tell them like it was a mistake. Every normal player will do it. I think it’s going to be good night for both teams.”
Capitals notes: Goaltender Braden Holtby agreed to a two-year, $3.7 million contract extension. Rugged defenseman John Erskine also formalized a two-year, $3.925 million contract extension. . . . Nicklas Backstrom missed Monday’s practice with an illness, while Jason Chimera left the session early with a lower-body injury and both are questionable against Carolina.