Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal didn’t know what to expect out of his newest teammate. Sure, he played against Alexander Semin for seven seasons, but lining up opposite someone is different than sharing a locker room and having a personal stake in their success.
“You hear reports, you hear the media, you hear a lot of outside things about a person, about a player,” Staal said in a phone interview Monday. “I wasn’t going to make any judgments until I met him, until he was around for a while and I watched him compete on a daily basis in games and practices. Now, knowing him and the type of person he is, I’m not surprised he’s fit in. 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.”
Heading into tonight’s game against the Capitals, Semin has four goals, 10 assists and is averaging 20 minutes and 49 seconds of ice time over his first 17 games with Carolina. He’s playing mostly on the top line with Jiri Tlusty and Staal, who has 19 points in the first 17 contests – a start that Coach Kirk Muller attributes in part to Semin’s presence and playmaking ability.
“I don’t think Eric Staal is playing any differently than he was from Christmas on last year,” Muller said in a phone interview. “I think the difference is he’s playing with a real elite player now.”
Muller has been impressed by Semin’s deft playmaking ability as much as his ability to pick a corner against a goaltender for a highlight-reel goal. The Hurricanes’ bench boss knows what it’s like to leave a team after an extended tenure – as a player, he spent his first seven years in New Jersey before being traded to Montreal ahead of the 1991-92 season — and believes that the timing may have been right for Semin to make a move.
“Sometimes change is good for players and I think we grabbed him at the right time,” Muller said. “He’s come in with no pressure as far as expectations other than to fit in with the guys, be a team player and [learn] his is how we play, jump in and your skill level will just contribute to the team. He’s bought into it.”
Muller and Semin are still in the early stages of getting to know each other as player and coach. Carolina brought Semin in for the specific purpose of adding a highly-skilled winger to play with Staal, but Muller made it clear that if the Russian winger wants additional responsibility he needs to earn it.
“I just said, ‘Hey you’re going to be on the power play, you’re going to play with Eric Staal but anything after that depends on how you commit to the game,’” Muller explained. “Whether you become a regular penalty killer or are out there late at the end of the game when we’re up a goal. 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.”
Not only is Staal glad to have a highly skilled winger skating next to him but he said that Semin has fit in with the Hurricanes roster well, attending player gatherings and dinners and opening up a bit to his new teammates.
“He’s got a ton of skill, he competes hard every night, every day in practice and getting to know him on a little more personal level he’s a good guy,” Staal said. “He’s fun to be around and when it comes down to games, he’s serious and driven and wants to win and that’s huge.”
Certainly doesn’t hurt that initial impression to have Semin making plays like the behind-the-back pass he made to Tlusty for a goal against the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 21, either.
“He’s hands down one of the most skilled players I’ve ever played with,” Staal said. “He just thinks the game on an elite level and that’s awesome to play with a guy like that. 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. I hope he’s enjoying playing with me as much as I am with him because I’m having a blast.”