The Capitals won again Tuesday night, this one a sharp 3-0 shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes. It may have been the Caps' best overall game of the season. Braden Holtby's strong play in goal continued. Things are definitely looking better than they did in the season's early stages.
Missing from the snappy synopsis above are the words “Alexander Semin.” The mercurial Russian, a Capital for seven seasons, made his first appearance as a visitor at Verizon Center. He was booed pretty much every time he touched the puck. He got four shots on net. He didn't play badly. He didn't play great. He was just kind of there.
In short, he was more of a factor before the game than he was during the game.
Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer touched off a bit of a firestorm – maybe unintentionally, maybe not – the day before the game when he spoke of his former teammate in less than glowing terms.
“It was tough to lose his scoring ability when he wanted to play. But all in all I think we've been doing well without him,” Brouwer said after Monday's practice. “Some nights, you didn't even know if he going to come to the rink. It's tough to play alongside guys like those because you don't know what you're going to get out of them.”
There's some very telling stuff in those comments.
Semin scored 197 goals for the Capitals. He had one season with 40 and two more above 30. He was, many times, an absolute joy to watch. He was, more often, very aggravating to watch.
One goal he scored late last season stands out. One second, he was off to the right of the goal. Before anyone could realize it, he was off to the left. Puck on his stick. But only briefly. A quick flick and the thing was in the net.
You'd watch and wonder why he wasn't a consistent 50-goal scorer.
Other nights, you'd watch him and wonder if he even cared.
Being aloof, being moody, doesn't make Semin a bad person or a bad teammate. Not doing interviews often, or doing them in Russian even though he can speak English, doesn't make him a bad person. Grab a cross section of any 20 random people. Age, race, gender, it doesn't matter. Some will be gregarious. Some will be mostly silent. Some are happy, some are sullen. There's no reason to expect a sports team to be any different.
What isn't tolerable is not playing hard, all the time. As Brouwer noted the day before the game and Holtby noted afterward, ability isn't Semin's issue.
“A guy like that is never easy to play against if he's on his game,” Holtby said. “If he decides to play, he could be the best player in the world, so you have to be aware of that and you just, like any skill player like that, you have to be aware of where he is on the ice all the time.”
Ask anyone in any sport and a good bet is they'd tell you they'd take total effort over pure ability every time. You can't always play well. You can always play hard. You earn your teammates' respect by letting them know they can count on you, even when things aren't going well.
“A great teammate is a guy you know will do anything for you and do anything for the team to win,” Caps defenseman Tom Poti said. “One who is going to go through the wall for you, a guy you know you can rely on when things are good and when things are bad. You have to know someone is going to rely on you and you have to be able to rely on someone else.”
Caps coach Adam Oates described the ideal teammate as “someone who is a professional. Day in and day out, when things are going good and when things are going bad. You do your job. You show up for work. You're just a solid citizen.”
The Hurricanes are saying all the right things about Semin now, as they should. He has only been with them for 18 games. It's doubtful anyone who played with Semin terribly long in Washington would say he fits the descriptions provided by Poti and Oates.
Letting him go couldn't have been easy, just because of that tantalizing ability. Seeing him sign with a division rival couldn't have been easy. The teams play each other four more times and chances are good Semin will be a major factor in at least one of those games.
But the Caps made the right call to let him go. Brouwer's comments made it clear he was as frustrating to play with as he was to watch. Maybe he'll pull it together and have a 50-goal season one year. If it happens, the Caps and their fans should say good on him but not spend one second regretting he's no longer here.
Though they've played better lately, the Caps still have some issues. Not having Alexander Semin is not one of them.
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