Alexander Semin was the first Carolina Hurricanes player on the ice for Tuesday's morning skate at Verizon Center, the arena he called home for his first seven NHL seasons with the Washington Capitals.
That was only fitting on a day Semin's first-year teammates praised not just his talent but his work ethic.
"As a person, as a player, we can't ask for any more," Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. "He's been bringing it for practice and games and competing well. He's been a lot of fun to play with. He's a good player that obviously thinks on an elite level."
After building up a reputation with the Caps of being a supremely talented winger with inconsistency in his game and his habits, Semin is making the most of a fresh start in Carolina. Not only has he produced, but the 28-year-old has endeared himself to teammates and coach Kirk Muller.
"I don't know where he's getting this rep from, but he's been working hard and doing a lot of good things," Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said. "Obviously everyone knows that he's talented, but I think that he does have that work ethic that not everyone sees. He's a great teammate. He's done so many good things for our team."
In seven seasons with the Caps, Semin did plenty of good things. He recorded 197 goals, good for fifth in franchise history, and 408 points, good for 14th.
At four goals and 10 assists going into Tuesday's game at the Caps, he has a long way to go before reaching the Carolina record books. But, at least in the eyes of those around the Hurricanes, Semin — who was not made available to reporters Tuesday after the morning skate — has already distanced himself from his past.
"I don't really base anything on before he got here. You just really judge a guy when you have him," Muller said. "All we're concerned about is how he's been since he's been in Carolina, and I can just say that he's been good. Eric, I think, is really benefiting from him.
"He's surprised a lot of guys as far as being a playmaker. A lot of people think of him as being a goal-scorer, and I think because of that it's been a lot of fun for Eric because of the style that he plays. They've really created a good chemistry together."
If internal tension was part of what paved Semin's road out of Washington, you wouldn't know it when talking to his Hurricanes teammates.
Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo, who played 25 games alongside Semin with the Caps late in the 2009-10 season, noticed a difference this time around. Corvo said Semin isn't a "super open guy" who is going to approach teammates but added that he'll open up when they make the effort.
"I didn't really know him that well," Corvo said. "He didn't really open up to me at all. It's nice to see this side of him and more friendly and just fun to be around."
Semin's English still isn't good enough that the Russian feels comfortable doing interviews on a consistent basis. But teammates said he has spoken the language fine around them.
And even if he doesn't communicate often, Semin speaks the language of hockey well enough to get by.
"I think he enjoys [setting up teammates] more so than scoring a goal, and I think that's the one [that] caught us off-guard," Muller said. "If anything, I keep preaching him to shoot more, but he's got a mindset that he likes to set people up and make plays, which is great and he's capable of doing it."
Semin is better known for his offense than his defense, but the career plus-75 player has earned plenty of praise for his all-around game with Carolina.
"He's been very good in all three zones," Eric Staal said. "He competes very hard on the puck. He's got a great stick. He's got great instincts and knows the game. That's all you can ask for: You want to play all three zones, you want to make sure that you're contributing offensively because that's what you're counted [on] to do, but you have to be relied upon in different situations."
Semin is getting first-line minutes and seeing time on the top power-play unit. Count some ex-teammates as those who expected to see him play this well.
"Everybody knows he's a great player," Washington captain and friend Alex Ovechkin said, "and it's not [a] surprise for me he get that kind of success there."
Semin did pile up 16 penalty minutes in his first 17 Hurricanes games, so it's not all perfect. But with the puck he has continued to look like a magician on the ice at times.
"When you're playing with a player like that, you know anything can happen, so you've got to be ready," Eric Staal said. "You've got to be ready for a pass at any moment."
Left wing Jiri Tlusty knows that from the Hurricanes' game Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets, when Semin found him with a perfect blind pass.
"Behind the back, through the legs," Corvo said. "That's why he makes the big bucks. He makes the plays that other guys just don't think of."
Semin's ability to make difficult plays look easy has never been questioned. But even the elements of Semin's game that have come under fire aren't ones the Hurricanes are concerned about.
"I think he's competed hard every practice and every game for us. He continues to prove people wrong," Eric Staal said. "I've got nothing but good things to say about him."
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