By Mark Giannotto
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Alexander Semin was growing impatient as he waited for teammate Semyon Varlamov to complete a Russian television interview during the Washington Capitals' annual media luncheon on Sept. 29, so he started leafing through an NHL media guide. He riffled through the pages, pausing only for a quick glance every once in a while, until he reached the page with his name on top. He began studying the statistics meticulously, using his finger to guide his eyes from season to season.
Semin only turned his attention away from the book when a reporter began asking him questions after an interpreter arrived. Five minutes later, as Varlamov finished up his one-on-one and Semin's turn to go on camera had arrived, the Russian winger was asked about his aspirations for the upcoming season.
"Score more goals than Ovie," he said in English, with a smirk on his face.
It was a rare glimpse into the head of the Capitals' other Russian Alex, the one who speaks only sporadically with American reporters, and never without an interpreter. Semin, 25, is so talented, according to teammates and coaches, that scoring more goals than Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's two-time defending MVP, isn't an unreasonable proposition. And yet, sometimes, his play can appear so self-centered it drives those same coaches and teammates crazy.
"I think he's top 10 player in the NHL," Ovechkin said. "Sometimes he gets so excited and he just wants to win battle and he just makes . . . bad penalty. But it is what it is, and I can't say he can do something else."
Semin has just 16 penalty minutes through 19 games this season, but it's where those infractions have come that draw the ire of his critics. This season, and throughout his four-plus years playing for the Capitals, he has shown a penchant for careless giveaways and, subsequently, even worse penalties taken in his own offensive zone.
Perhaps the best example came in a 3-2 loss to New Jersey at Verizon Center on Nov. 4, when Semin took three offensive-zone penalties, including one for hooking that led to a Devils goal. Afterward, Coach Bruce Boudreau was blunt in saying, "Alexander Semin has been in the league for five years and it's just dumb penalties."
But then there are nights like Thursday's 6-2 victory over Florida, when Semin, making his return from a wrist injury that had sidelined him seven games, had two goals and two assists and was the most dominant offensive player on the ice. Last year, when he compiled 79 points in 62 games, only five players, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and Ovechkin, surpassed Semin's 1.27 points-per-game output. He has 11 goals and 10 assists this season.
"I think he's got more talent" than Ovechkin, captain Chris Clark said. "He's just pure talent, where he can make somebody look like they shouldn't belong in the league the way he can go around guys. He wants the puck . . . and if somebody takes it away, he wants it so bad, he wants to get it back, so it's his competitiveness that sometimes gets in the way."
That reasoning is often difficult to understand because of the language barrier between Semin and American reporters. Though he knows more English than he lets on to reporters, Semin is shy by nature, according to teammates. He grew even more reclusive last season when Yahoo Sports quoted him as saying, "What's so special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there," setting off a storm of negative publicity in the hockey community. When asked about his detractors before the season, Semin pointed out that he can't control what others think of him, only what he does on the ice.
"My job is to go out there, score goals, play defense and I think that's what the coach is expecting of me," he said in September through an interpreter. "Every person has their own opinion. I can't just call up everybody and say, 'Hey, think this about me.' It's just a matter of personal opinion. If somebody thinks something, then it's a personal opinion."
But how Semin is viewed within the Capitals organization is important, because he is due to become a restricted free agent at the end of this season along with talented center Nicklas Backstrom. It's unclear whether the team can sign both to long-term deals and stay under the league's salary cap, but determining Semin's salary might be the most challenging part of the equation for the Capitals.
His durability issues -- he has played more than 63 games in a season just once in his career -- and inconsistent defensive play mean a raise from his current $5 million salary is a risky move despite his considerable skills. Semin does, however, have one important person in his corner, even if it's the teammate he desires to outscore this season.
"Sometimes people think Semin's not a good team player, but it's not true," said Ovechkin. "He's a great guy in the locker room, a supportive guy to everyone. He's a big part of the team, and I hope he stays here."