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Semin, Vanek among NHL elite

- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2008

Any list of the NHL's most gifted offensive players will include the usual suspects - Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier.

Two other names on any short list also will be Alexander Semin of the Washington Capitals and Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres - each a player with sublime skill but also the reputation around the league, fairly or unfairly, as an enigma.

Both are off to a great start this season - before Friday night's games Vanek led the league with nine goals, and Semin was tied for tops with 16 points - but both also are making strides to becoming more complete players.

"That's a good comparison," Caps defenseman Mike Green said. "Alex is really breaking through this year. He's really put his mind to it, and it is not just all skill. He's playing unbelievable - and obviously Vanek is off to a really great start."

Semin's evolution has been critical for the Caps, who to this point have not gotten the contributions expected from Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In seasons past, there have been questions about Semin - his willingness to play defense, his affinity for taking unnecessary penalties, his tendency to skip optional practices.

Toward the end of last season - after the acquisition of Russian legend Sergei Fedorov, to be precise - there were signs of Semin's maturation both on and off the ice. He and Backstrom had a productive playoff series against Philadelphia, and the momentum for Semin has carried into this season.

He has six multipoint games, twice as many as the next player on the Caps roster. But there is more to it than just offense. Semin has taken just two penalties in nine games (he had more penalty minutes than games played in the past two seasons combined).

He also has become a fixture on the penalty kill, logging nearly seven minutes against Nashville (tops among forwards) and springing David Steckel for a short-handed goal with a beautiful breakout pass.

"[Semin] when he works, he is one of the top players in the league," forward Brooks Laich said. "I think he is getting more consistent at that. Before, I know he has been criticized about playing one game and maybe taking the next off, but as of the end of last year we really saw his heart come through. This year it has been the same thing. He has been one of our most consistent players."

Meanwhile in Buffalo, Vanek's hot start has been a big reason for the Sabres' place as one of the early surprises in the NHL. The franchise lost such stars as Chris Drury, Danny Briere and Brian Campbell in the past two offseasons and missed the playoffs in 2007-08 after back-to-back trips to the conference finals.

Vanek's seven-year, $50 million contract was a signal (with a nudge from Edmonton, which first offered Vanek that amount) that the club would move forward with him as one of the team's cornerstones.

"Early on in his career, he was overshadowed by Chris Drury being there, Danny Briere being there, and I think that kind of helped him out," Laich said. "He's like [Semin] - most of the energy is focused on [Ovechkin]. Most of the focus from the defensemen was on Briere and Drury, so he could kind of freewheel and get opportunities."

The comparison doesn't end there. Each had a great season in 2006-07 - Vanek had 43 goals while Semin scored 38 - and each had a disappointing campaign last year.

Vanek finished the season with 36 goals, but he got off to a very slow start without Drury and Briere around and ended up registering 20 fewer points. Semin struggled with a high ankle sprain for most of the first half of the season but also finished strong with 26 tallies and three more against the Flyers in the postseason.

Both players have incredible hands - they are two of the league's best at snapping pucks in tight spaces past unsuspecting goaltenders. Still, their overall offensive skill sets are a little different.

Semin blends the hands of a sniper with artistry and flair as one of the league's top stick-handlers. Vanek will deke past defenders as well, but he is very effective at finding openings in the defense without the puck. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said Vanek reminds him of "Luc Robitaille, only faster and bigger."

"I would say Semin is the most skilled guy in the league by far," Green said. "Alex will just dangle guys and go score while Vanek - I think he just makes the right play and seems to be in the right spot all the time."