washingtonpost.com
Russian mystery in the District

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; D01

On the evening he scored his third hat trick of the season, Alexander Semin stood in the Washington Capitals' dressing room enveloped by a horde of reporters. Amid the sound of whirring fans drying sweaty equipment, Semin was asked if he can ever predict such a successful performance.

Given an opportunity to offer insight or make a joke, the 26-year-old Russian sharpshooter chose one of his typically guarded answers.

"I'm not going to say anything," he said through an interpreter. "That's inside me. I'm not going to share that with you guys. Why should I reveal anything?"

A third of the way through his sixth season with the Capitals, Semin is on pace for a career-best campaign statistically, and although teammates say he's gradually revealing more of his reserved personality in the locker room, he is still a mystery to the outside world. Whether Washington is a long-term fit for Semin, whose contract is set to expire at the conclusion of the season, remains to be seen.

"Everything is going well here," Semin said through an interpreter in a rare one-on-one interview. "I want to continue winning, to stay here. I want to win the Cup here. It's a good team, with good coaches and training staff. I'm not thinking much further ahead now. Once there's an offer, I will, but I'm comfortable with this team."

General Manager George McPhee declined to discuss where Semin might fit in to Washington's long-term plans, but if the skilled winger can continue his progress on all fronts through the duration of the regular season and playoffs, he could demand more than the $6 million he will earn from his current one-year deal.

Semin leads the Capitals with 18 goals and is among the top five scorers in the league with 33 points, and he has removed some of the doubts about his discipline after leading the Capitals in minor penalties last year. Still, he insists he has not changed anything about his game.

"It's the same kind of approach," he said. "Maybe I got luckier."

But Semin's teammates say what has changed is his attitude off the ice.

"He's a fun-loving kid, and I don't think many people aside from us get to see that much because he's not doing interviews and things like that," said Brooks Laich, Semin's linemate for the better part of the past two seasons. "He has been a little more vocal at times and I think it's just progress moving forward. . . . He's been in this organization for some time now and [for] some players, it can take a while to be completely comfortable."

What Semin chooses to share with the public has always been limited. He will only conduct interviews in Russian, and while he understands enough English to communicate with teammates and the Capitals' equipment and training staff, he still doesn't speak it much.

"Sometimes it's a little bit hard because he doesn't want to speak too much English," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "He's a great guy here; I just wish he spoke more English sometimes. Every year I've been here, though, he gets a little bit better. I think it's good for the team, too, that he's trying to."

When the players are secluded from the outside world - in the locker room or on the team's charter plane - he has been subtly more outgoing, taking part in the regular online poker games the Capitals play on their iPads during flights and the playful trash talking that can go along with it.

"There are days when he's really chatty and others where he's quiet, but everyone's like that," said D.J. King, a newcomer on the team whose stall at Kettler Capitals Iceplex is directly to the right of Semin's. "When he's doing well [in poker], everybody can hear."

Part of understanding Semin, the Capitals believe, is respecting that he's not an extrovert like Alex Ovechkin, his closest friend on the team. He prefers to keep to himself more often than not, but his familiarity with those around him in the Capitals organization - among players alone, nine others in addition to Semin have been on the team since the 2006-07 season - at this stage in his career may be a strong contributing factor to his success both on and off the ice.

"When you've been together for so long, there's no kind of conflict with anyone. Everything is good, more or less the same, but sometimes I'll bring things up to people more," Semin said. "This team is great. If I didn't like it here, I wouldn't be playing here. I want to stay here."

Determining where Semin falls in the Capitals' future is a question both parties delayed answering in December 2009, when they agreed to a one-year extension for the 2010-11 season. Semin was set to become a restricted free agent last summer when his previous two-year, $9.2 million contract ran out, but the deal bridged the gap to his eligibility as an unrestricted free agent.

In addition to Semin, seven other Washington players are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of this year and two more will be restricted free agents. The Capitals have 13 players under contract for the 2011-12 season with more than $22.8 million in space under the NHL's salary cap figure of $59.4 million, according to capgeek.com. That figure may rise by $2 million or even more next year.

"If there's an appropriate deal from the Capitals, we will consider it our first choice," Semin's agent, Mark Gandler said. "The Capitals need to figure out what they want to do and how they want to commit their resources."

What remains for Semin now is to prove he can continue to strike a balance with well-rounded play for a prolonged period of time that includes the playoffs, where his performances have been both dominant (recording eight points in 2008 against the Flyers in an eventual seven-game defeat) and absent (registering no points with 44 shots in a first-round loss to Montreal last season), and avoid the streakiness that has come to define his career at times.

"I hope he's going to be on same level at the end of the year," Ovechkin said. "I think he needs to be in good position and feel good about himself at the end of the year."

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