A Fan’s Tribute to Alexander Semin (Opinion)

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His Career with Capitals
opinion One of the more prominent players for the Washington Capitals since the “Lockout of 2003-2004” was Alexander Semin.  During his term with the Caps from 2003 through 2012, he had scored 197 goals and earned 211 assists.  He had 6 consecutive seasons of scoring at least 20 goals, including one season (2009-2010) with 40.

He was drafted by the Caps in the First Round of the 2002 draft, with the 13th overall pick (obtained from the Dallas Stars) and played his rookie year with the Caps in the following season (2003-2004).  He did not appear with the Caps again until 2006 since he remained in Russia for the first year after the lockout to play hockey there, which would complete his military obligation.  As unbelievable as it seems that playing hockey in Russia fulfills a military obligation, hockey in Russia had historically sponsored by the Russian Army and the KGB.  In any case for him, playing with Russia the first year post lockout was Year 1 of his military obligation and the post lockout year was Year 2.

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(Photo: Washington Capitals)

He was back in 2006 and, for that season, scored 38 goals, finishing second on the team in goals, only behind Ovechkin, and being one of 3 players on the team who had topped 30 goals, the other being Chris Clark. He had started the year, getting third line minutes and power play time, but after a hot start to the season (8 goals in the first seven games, including a hat trick in the season opener), he was moved up to the second line.  He also contributed 35 assists so he ended up with 73 points.

The following season (2007-08), he sprained his ankle at the end of preseason and missed several games during the October/November time frame and, thus, got off to a slow start.  He ended up with 26 goals and 43 points, overall, with many of his goals and assists important in the Caps’ drive towards the playoffs.  He contributed 3 goals and 4 assists in the playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers in which the Caps lost.

He got off to an extremely good start for the 2008-2009 season, earning the NHL Player of the Month Award for October.  But in early November, he left a game early due to injury and missed the entire third period.  It was a back injury.  Originally it was not thought to be serious but he ended up missing nearly a month. Reports are that it was a pinched nerve.  He was back but his back was injured again from a cross check and, once again, was out, this time for two weeks.  His first game back from that injury featured his infamous fight with Marc Staal of the New York Rangers which was obviously not a fight waged by typical NHL fighters.  For the playoffs, he had 5 goals and 3 assists in the Round 1 series playoff against the Rangers but 0 goals and 5 assists in the Round 2 playoff series against the Penguins.  For Round 2, he was hampered by a thumb injury.

He had his best scoring year in 2009-2010 when he had 40 goals and 44 assists, which happened in spite of a stretch in November where he was hampered by a wrist injury.   He struggled in the playoff against Montreal, having only 2 assists, as the Caps lost in 7 games to Montreal.  He had over 40 shots on goal but none went in.

He got off to a great start in 2010-2011 as well, being among the league leaders in goals at the end of November but injured his groin in early December at a time when the Caps were mired in a long losing streak that was documented in HBO’s “24-7: Road to the Winter Classic” series.   He ended up with 28 goals, the slowed productivity attributed to his groin injury and Boudreau’s switch to a “trap system” during the team’s long losing streak.  He had a great series in Round 1 against the New York Rangers, with three goals and 1 assist, including the game winner in Game 1.  But Round 2 was less productive, as he scored 1 goal and had 1 assist when the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay.

2011-2012 was his last season with the Caps.  He had gotten off to a slow start, with only 5 goals through early December and frequently getting minor penalties, which lead to a one game healthy scratch.  He ended up with 21 goals for the year.  In the playoffs that year, he had three goals against the Boston Bruins in Round 1 but did not score against the New York Rangers, as they lost in seven games.  Given his decline in scoring and the fact that teammates had criticized his work ethic the previous off-season, it was evident that he would not be returning to the team after that season.

A Fan’s Point of View
When Semin returned from the lockout, one of my thoughts during that training camp was wondering if he and Ovechkin would become friends, given that they were both Russian and around the same age, with Semin being a year and a half older.  Turns out they had already known each other since their mid-teens, having played together in international competition for several years, including the World Junior games of 2004 and the IIHF 18-under Championship games in 2002.  But they certainly were close friends during their days with the Caps.   I did some research on Semin and discovered that he was a year older than my first child, a daughter, and, if the astrologers are right, was a Pisces with Moon in Pisces, just like her.  With that, he was the player most representing the “coming of age” of my own first child.  Although there were other players that represented that to me as well, including Eric Fehr, the Caps first rounder of 2003, the year she was 18 and graduated from high school and Alex Ovechkin, who, while drafted the following summer, was born the same year as her and the first one from her birth year who had made it to the NHL for the Caps.

Throughout the 2006-2007 season (and subsequent seasons), I found myself paying special attention to both Ovechkin and Semin, who had cemented themselves as my favorite players.  I found myself paying even more attention during the 2007-2008 when the Caps had gotten off to a horrible start that resulting in the firing of Glen Hanlon, the hiring of Bruce Boudreau, and the ultimately successful drive to the playoffs when they lost in Round 1 to the Flyers.   In 2008-2009, I started going to Caps games again.  I had gone to many games throughout the 1970’s and the early 1980’s but, with the arrival of two kids, became more preoccupied with them and their lives and their own sporting events.  Of course, I had still followed the Caps during the childhood of my children but their lives were more important to me.  But that season, my younger child (born in 1991) had a year of driving experience under her belt and I was more comfortable with resuming my former activities.  So now I could attend games played by an exciting, rising young team, featuring guys who were the approximate age of my first-born.  I ended up attending the game against the New Jersey Devils in early November where the Caps were giving away the Ovechkin bobblehead.   In that game, Semin was injured and did not return for the third period.  I spent the following month wondering when he would return and he ended up being out for a month.  I attended the game against the St Louis Blues where he got reinjured when David Backes of the St Louis Blues had cross-checked him in the back, reinjuring it.  I seemed to be back luck for Semin that year.  Still, I ended up buying a 6 game plan for the Caps, as a Christmas present to myself and my husband, adding another 3 games to that plan.  By February, I decided to become a full Season Ticket holder for the following season, got to watch the 2008-2009 playoffs in person and have been a Season Ticket holder ever since.

Throughout Semin’s time with the Caps, the opinions on him were very polarized, from fans, bloggers, and even people within the Caps’ organization.  There were those who loved him and what he could do and those who could not stand him.  On the positive side of the ledger, he scored goals and had a respectable number of assists.  On the negative side, he had a penchant for taking too many minor penalties.  He was criticized for not performing well in the playoffs but, in reality, his typical pattern was to perform very well during Round 1 and not perform well in Round 2.  I have no idea why there was such a discrepancy in performance in the different rounds but know that in the playoff series against the Penguins in 2009, he was dealing with a thumb injury and could barely hold onto his stick.  He disliked giving interviews, since he was an extreme introvert who was not confident in “thinking on his feet” in a foreign language.  He was criticized for his defense yet he actually had positive Relative Corsi percentages throughout his career, meaning more shot attempts for his team when on the ice than shot attempts by the other team.   Many people criticized his work ethic.  While I don’t have firsthand knowledge of that, I tend to believe that talent can only get a player so far and, after a certain point a player needs to work hard in order to stay in the NHL any length of time.   I also figure that it would take more determination for a player to be willing to play in a league outside their home country where everyone speaks a foreign language.  But wonder if Semin’s extreme introversion, by not getting close to people, and not wanting to talk to the press contributed to the negative perception.  As a person who has struggled with oral communications skills during my lifetime, I have experienced many occasions of being judged as less intelligent, less mature, less dedicated, less mature, or what have you.

In many ways, the polarized opinions on him reminded me of the polarized opinions held about my first child, which had dated back from even before she had started school.  I recall a day care provider of hers who did not regard her well and when I switched day care providers, the next one had a great opinion of her.  When she started school, she had several close friends but there were several other people with whom she had conflicts.  When going to school and when she participated in activities, I would get widely varying reports from teachers and other adults, where some had a great regard for her and others who would have labeled her as “enigmatic”.   In high school, she reported having a great relationship with several of her teachers while others seemed biased against her.  Of all the similarities between my elder daughter and Sasha, they had close friends born around the same time frame, as my daughter had a friend who was born just six days after Ovi.

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There were so many stories that chronicled the friendship between him and Ovechkin.  Many were publicized by the Caps, including the times they both visited sick children at Childrens’ Hospital in DC and some Caps’ Season Ticket Holders at Six Flags in Maryland.  I recall so many pictures of them that fans would post on social media sites, such as Flickr.  I’ll never forget them time that Semin had traveled to Moscow to attend a party to honor Ovi and later that same summer, Ovi went to visit him In Krasnoyarsk.  Was Semin the “ying” to oppose the “yang” of the more extroverted Ovechkin?

While it was the logical business move for the Caps to let Semin go in free agency, given that it would not be cost-effective to pay a salary north of $6,000,000 for a player whose goal totals had declined in successive years, I felt the Caps could have handled his last season with much more professionalism.  Not only were former players on the team criticizing his work ethic, but other personnel associated with the team were, as well, even before he had left.  The situation was heartbreaking to me, personally, and became more heartbreaking as time elapsed.  As soon as the season ended, his agent, Mark Gandler, strongly hinted that he would not return.  As expected, he signed with another team, the Carolina Hurricanes, a team I’ve generally been meh about but there was one consolation, at least he was not going to the hated Penguins.

When he came into Verizon Center with Carolina, the fans would boo him every time he had the puck, which is something that did not generally even happen when the notable stars of arch-rival teams, like Sidney Crosby, were playing.  Even Jaromir Jagr, who had a reputation for not playing his hardest for the Caps, did not receive as many boos. During Semin’s time with the Caps, I had bonded with another fellow fan of Semin, due to our love for him and the fact we had kids the same age.  Once Semin left the Caps, she had converted to become a Carolina Hurricanes’ fan and has actively rooted against the Caps ever since.  While the treatment of Semin was the only factor, it was a major factor.  She was joined in turning against the Caps by other Semin fans who also felt they could no longer root for the team in good conscience.  I would go to Caps/Canes games and be angry regardless of which team won.  One of the worst moments for me as a Semin fan was when the Caps did the “Top 40 Caps” tributes in honor of the team’s 40th anniversary during the 2014-2015 season.  For each game at Verizon Center, a different member of the “Top 40 Caps” would be featured in a highlight film that was done during breaks in play.  Many times, the particular player was “in the house” attending the game and the camera would pan him.  But the tributes to “unpopular” players would be played near the end of the intermission, when fans were usually not in their seats.  This happened in the tributes to Jagr, to Adam Oates due to his recent failed coaching stint, and to Alexander Semin.  I felt like the mother of the most unpopular kid in school that night.

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(Photo: NHL)

As for Semin’s own fortunes, he had a decent year his first year in Carolina in 2012-13, after the lockout was over.   He had 13 goals and 31 assists during that short season and fit on the top line with Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty, the latter who had a career year.  At that point, Semin seemed to have adapted to becoming more of a playmaker than a scorer.  Unfortunately, he got a concussion near the end of that season and his season ended prematurely.  The following season (2013-2014), he injured his wrist during training camp and got off to a slow start in scoring.  He also had another concussion.  He ended the season with 22 goals and 20 assists but the injured wrist got worse and he needed surgery at the end of the year.  I can’t help but think the wrist injury exacerbated his wrist issues from back in 2009.

The 2014-2015 season was a disaster of a season.   Given the fact that he could not train as much as normal due to his wrist surgery, he was off to a very slow start, not scoring a goal until December.  Carolina also had a new coach, Bill Peters, who did not seem to like his style and healthy scratched him for many games in November.  He ended up with only 5 goals and 19 points overall.   Carolina ended up buying out the rest of his contract and he signed with the Montreal Canadiens where his fortunes have not improved and I fear that this could be his very last year in the NHL.   While Montreal is winning, it seems to me that his current coach has given up on him too soon.

It appears that his current coach believes the prevailing narrative that he lacks the appropriate work ethic.  But, as I said before, I tend to believe that no player would last 10 years in the NHL, if they did not work hard since talent can only get a player so far and the road to the NHL likely weeded out most of the players with poor work ethics.   When going well, Semin tended to make things look easy.  So his critics assumed that he did not work those other times.  As he was originally trained as a figure skater, his skating style is more like a figure skater, as he did not develop the “pump” technique many hockey players use and players using “pump” technique look like they work harder.  I figure his discomfort with talking to the press and the fact that he was an extreme introvert who did not let too many people close to him contributed to the negative impression people would have of him.

I figure his decline in performance can be attributed primarily to injuries.  There was the groin injury that took place during the December 2010 time frame, which was aggravated in January, resulting in more lost time.  His goal scoring took a hit and he never again topped 30 goals.  While some of it could be ascribed to Boudreau’s new defense “trap” system and regression to the mean, groin injuries have taken a major toll on the careers of many other players including Caps players, Tom Poti, Mike Green, and Brooks Laich and none of those players could regain their former productivity since dealing with the “Groin Gremlin”.  Then, there was the pre-season wrist injury in training camp before the 2013-2014 season, which was responsible for his slow start that year.  That wrist injury likely added to the problems he had with his wrist, that were evident during the 2009-2010 season.  Media and bloggers had analyzed the torque of his wrist shot but in light of his injury issues, I wonder if this torque was from an unnatural motion and had an adverse effect on his wrist tendons and caused the problem, somewhat akin to a baseball pitcher having an unnatural motion that would eventually result in injury.  Plus, there were ongoing back issues.  Semin had had back issues during the 2008-2009 season and, during the 2014 Olympics, the Russian press had reported that he was having back issues then too, in addition to the wrist issues.

As a fan, I recall my own personal encounters with him.  He was supposed to appear at a memorabilia show in Chantilly in March 2009, along with several other members of the team but was unable to appear due to illness.  I finally met him at the Capitals Convention in October 2009 when I had signed up to have a picture taken with him there.   A fan who stood next to me in that particular line remarked after our respective pictures were taken that he was “beautiful”.   The following week I got his autograph after a morning skate at Kettler when he signed my yearbook.  I later got him to autograph a picture of all four of the “Young Guns” at another memorabilia show in Dulles Town Center.  I also had gotten a picture of him at a later Capitals Convention.  After that picture, I said, “Spasibo” which is Russian for thank you and he said, “You’re welcome”.  For his Caps career and all the memories, I say “Spasibo”, again, even though his recent career has gone so badly.

By Diane Doyle

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His passion for the Caps has grown over the decades, which has included time as a season ticket holder, social media and community organizer, and most recently led to the founding of NoVa Caps in 2014. Jon earned a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering at Old Dominion University, and is a Systems Engineer during intermissions, which has been instrumental in supporting his Capitals habit.
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5 Responses to A Fan’s Tribute to Alexander Semin (Opinion)

  1. jonmsorensen says:

    Certainly a polarizing figure.

  2. Michael Fleetwood says:

    What a lot of people may forget is that when Bruce Boudreau was the coach, Semin played on the penalty kill often and actually scored da shorthanded goal. At the same time, i would have to disagree with you when you said that players like Sidney Crosby are not booed when they have the puck. Crosby is booed every time he touches the puck, but i do believe that Semin, as talented as he was, became somewhat isolated from his team at the end of his tenure, and his recent performances have shown that the Caps were better off without him. He’s on the wrong side of 30 now too, so his best years are probably behind him

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