Semin at training camp in 2003.
As a longtime Washington Capitals fan, I’ve had the sometimes rough duty of sticking up for a certain player (Alexander Semin) who, incidentally, was the main reason I became a Caps fan back in 2003. My first Capitals game on the 12th of November 2003 gave me my first glimpse of him. I fell in love with his playing style immediately. His stick-handling skills were enchanting and, to this day, he still makes my jaw drop at some of the dekes he can pull rushing up the ice. His lone goal in the 7-1 shellacking of the Carolina Hurricanes during my inaugural game was a sneaky little deke around a veteran defenseman and a total undressing of the goalie. (Check it out for yourself.)
Semin joined the team at one of the most trying times for the Capitals organization. That year the team was dismantled at the trade deadline. Fans bid farewell to iconic winger Peter Bondra, as well as Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar, and the man fans love to hate: Jaromir Jagr. At the end of the 2003-04 season, majority owner Ted Leonsis declared the team was going to rebuild from within. He started later that summer by selecting Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
By all accounts, Semin’s rookie season was anything but pleasant. Rumored dissension inside the Caps locker room did not create a healthy atmosphere for the young Russian, who was still trying to adjust to life in North America. And, his lack of English skills created a natural barrier between him and most of the team. Semin missed the final game of the regular season, oversleeping and missing the team flight out of Washington. When the season ended, he was sent to Portland, Maine to play for the Capitals’ American Hockey League farm team, the Pirates, to help with their unsuccessful Calder Cup run. Semin ended the season with 10 goals and 22 points in 52 games, playing mostly on the third and fourth lines.
Semin plays for Lada Togliatti of the Russian Super League.
The following season, the NHL lockout forced Semin to find work elsewhere. He signed a one-year deal with Lada Togliatti of the Russian Super League, opting not to report to the Hershey Bears (the Capitals’ new AHL affiliate). The Capitals subsequently suspended his contract for failing to report to Hershey. He finished the season Togliatti.
When the NHL labor dispute ended and the 2005-06 season was on the horizon, Semin was expected to return to the Capitals for the final year of his entry-level contract. However, Semin and his agent, Mark Gandler, were sued by the Capitals for more contract violations after he signed a 1-year extension with Lada. Gandler managed to have the suit nullified by claiming Semin’s contract with Lada was satisfying his two-year military obligation to the Russian Federation.
Whether it really was Russian military obligations or something else is unclear, but Lada gave him numerous incentives to stay. He was given a car, an apartment and a $2 million (USD) contract to play for the team. At just 21 years old, $2 million was much more than the chump change the Capitals were offering, and for that reason alone, I can’t blame him for wanting to stay in Russia where he also didn’t have to deal with a struggling team and language barrier.
Semin’s decision ultimately backfired as he fell victim to the unstable system in which the RSL governed itself by before the league revamped in 2007. Semin was let go by Lada a month into the season as the team salary was cut by 50 percent. The team avoided folding altogether by letting go of multiple players and loaning some out to other RSL teams.
Semin (in gold and blue) skates with Khimik.
At that time, Semin’s was the highest contract on the Lada roster. He was the first to be let go along with his car, apartment and contract. He didn’t stay unemployed for long as he signed with Khimik Mytischi, taking a pay cut. He finished the season with Khimik only notching 3 goals and 10 points in 26 games.
At the conclusion of his two-year stint back in Russia, Semin managed to mend fences with Capitals management and returned to Washington for the 2006-07 season, signing a 2-year deal.
Semin may have returned to Washington ready to get his NHL career back on track, but much of the Capitals’ fan base and media were more than a little annoyed by his antics. Critics saw Semin’s “military obligations” as a farce and Semin faced a backlash from fans who felt they had been spurned. He was labeled as the stereotypical “Mother Russia” player from then on out. His actions prior to rejoining the team reduced his popularity among the core Caps fans and heavily tarnished his reputation. To this day he is still seen by many fans as a ticking (two-time) Russian defector.
Semin did his best to let his play do the talking where his still limited English could not. He amassed 38 goals and 73 points in the 2006-07 season. While his efforts were a step in the right direction, his reputation among fans was still fairly dismal. He was routinely criticized for his lazy style of play and his tendency to take costly penalties.
In 2007-08, Semin only notched 26 goals and 42 points in an injury-plagued year. The 2008-09 season saw Semin struggle yet again with injuries, but he finished with a career-high 79 points and a dramatic improvement in the plus/minus column at +25.
Semin and Alexander Ovechkin seem ready to take over the NHL -- one city at a time.
In 2009-10, Semin showed he was beginning to mature as a player, scoring a career-high 40 goals. Management took notice of Semin’s improved play and signed him to a 1-year contract extension that will expire when he becomes a free agent at the end of the 2010-11 season.
Most of the ill will from his controversial return to the Capitals has dissipated, but his faults in the eyes of fans have shifted to his poor performance in the playoffs. Much of the anger stems from the playoff embarrassment the Capitals suffered against the Montreal Canadiens last April. Semin ended the series scoreless, though he pounded 40 shots on goal. His lack of desire to talk to the North American media and his insistence on not saying three words in English (at least publicly), add fuel to the arguments of those who want Semin out of D.C.
Now we find ourselves nearly a quarter of the way into the 2010-11 season, and Semin is atop leaderboard, outplaying his fellow Russian teammate, Alex Ovechkin. He has already scored two hat tricks this season and shows no sign of letting up. This is, after all, a contract year for Semin and while his out-of-this-world play is beyond entertaining for Caps fans to watch, it is bittersweet. With his elevated level of play, will come elevated salary expectations — expectations the Capitals simply cannot afford with the current roster and the possibility of a lower salary cap.
In a recent interview with Russia’s Sport Express, Semin made a simple statement on his future in Washington that might put to rest the argument among Caps fans on Semin’s agenda:
“I don’t agree that Washington can not afford me. If I want to play here, we’ll resolve it.”
Semin shows off his signature style.
Since day one, I have said this kid could be the best player in the league if he gave half the effort most forth-line grinders give game-in and game-out. His pure talent, world-class stickhandling skills, pinpoint accuracy and superb skating, would put him among the top five players in the league should he stay healthy. He is a unique combination of smooth skating and raw, unrivaled skill that transforms NHL players into legends.
The fans who cheer for him, love him for his dazzling performances on the ice, as well as his flamboyant off-ice personality. We look forward to his zany, trademark facial expressions. We love to see what sort of remarkable outfit he’ll throw together (we can assume these wild designer looks cost him thousands of dollars, yet they also make us wonder if he got dressed in the dark or in the wrong house). Whether he’s streaking across the ice or cruising down the road in one of his many ultra-expensive sports cars, we can’t help but take notice of him.
Perhaps this season will finally put an end to the disagreement about Semin among Capitals fans, as we all fall in love with the quirky Russian.
Here’s my bold prediction.
Semin is in the best shape of his life and is entering the prime of his career. He will reach the 45 goal plateau and, if he stays on his current pace, will break 50. I expect him to sign with the Capitals for $6.5-$7 million a season for at least five years. If we are lucky and Semin truly wants to stay and play alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin for the remainder of their decade-long contracts, he may take a hometown discount and sign for $6 million a season for a longer contract.
Bottom line: I don’t see Semin leaving the Capitals. Period.
Photos: Alexander Semin rookie year, and Semin and Alex Ovechkin from Getty Images; Semin with Lada Togliatti from The Associated Press; Semin with Khimik from the team’s official team site; Semin portrait by Kyle Christy Photgraphy.