- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

He collects the puck along the boards at the blue line and dashes in alone on net. The best goaltender in the world is waiting. The goalie tries to poke the puck away, but at the last second he stops and flips it over the netminder’s shoulder with a backhanded shot from a near impossible angle.

It is those flashes of brilliance from Alexander Semin, those few seconds when he can make even a future Hall of Fame goaltender like Martin Brodeur look pedestrian, that make the Washington Capitals’ other Russian phenom so special.

He gets knocked down during a battle for the puck along the boards in the neutral zone. Suddenly, he grabs the puck and throws it down the ice toward the opposing goaltender. The bizarre reaction earns him another trip to the penalty box.

It is those moments from Semin, whether it is taking bad penalties or skirting his defensive responsibilities, that make it obvious his metamorphosis into a complete player and true superstar is far from complete.

“He has demonstrated that he is a very talented player that can score goals and make plays,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “He is capable of doing a lot of things. Like a lot of young players, he needs to learn how to play better defensively. It is a process they all go through. Until you learn how to play well defensively and then can generate the offense, you are not as effective as you should be.”

It has been a breakout season on the ice for Semin, a 23-year old from Krasjonarsk, Russia. He has scored 38 goals this season, which is the 12th-most in the NHL. Many of them have been highlight-reel quality goals — the type that bring fans out of their seats and capture their imaginations.

He is an undeniable talent. It starts with one of the deadliest wrist shots in the world. He has an enormous amount of strength in his forearms and wrists, which enables him to put more velocity and snap into a shot standing still than most players can with the help of forward momentum. He is also precise with his accuracy, able to pick and choose corners at the last possible second.

“I don’t know [where it comes from]. His shot is perfect,” fellow Russian star and good friend Alex Ovechkin said. “He has unbelievable hands, and it is good for us that we have this great player.”

His shot alone would be enough for him to find success as a sniper in the NHL, but there is much more. He has powerful legs, which, like great talents Ovechkin and Jaromir Jagr, allow Semin to get past defenders. A combination of his balance and a long reach makes it tough for opposing players to knock him off the puck or try to take it away.

Those hands allow him to use all sorts of fancy stick handling maneuvers to go around other players. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Semin is considerably bigger now than he was as 20-year-old in his rookie season. When he wants to, he can throw his body around.

His combination of skills blend together to form a unique talent. Finding a comparable player is not easy. Names like Buffalo’s Maxim Afinogenov and Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk come up, but none is a perfect fit. He is bigger and not as quick as Afinogenov, smaller than Kovalchuk. Another source of comparison is Semin’s childhood idol, Pavel Bure.

“He’s got more size than Bure. Because he has more size than some players [with his skill level] like Afinegenov and Bure, they are more sort of darting players,” said Caps coach Glen Hanlon, who was an assistant in Vancouver during Bure’s playing days. “He is more [pure] speed that can do all sorts of things. I had Pavel, and he was more boom, boom, boom and not as much open ice skating.”

For all of the moments of greatness from Semin this season, some of his plays have been memorable for negative reasons. The puck-throwing incident was the turning point in a loss to Tampa Bay and ignited backlash from the team’s core of veteran leaders.

He is third on the team with 90 penalty minutes, and unlike tough guy Donald Brashear or even defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, many of his infractions are ones that could be avoided — penalties like hooking and holding that result from laziness on defense.

Tossing the puck earned Semin a long rest on the bench, and it wasn’t the first time Hanlon has sat him down. While Semin can ignite the team and the home crowd with an end-to-end rush, defensive responsibility must still come first.

“We want both Alexanders to be creative, and we know if they are going to score 40 to 50 goals there are going to be some turnovers,” Hanlon said. “But also with that freedom there comes a responsibility that if it is a 2-1 hockey game and it is the last minute of a period, they have to be able to understand the importance of the situation. We give them that freedom, and then with the game on the line [and] whenever we determine now is the time to play conservative hockey, they have to do that. That is what got him in trouble.”

Mystery man

Semin’s return to the team has been a success on the ice, but he certainly remains something of an enigma away from it. The largest barrier is his inability to speak the language. While Ovechkin speaks with the media on a daily basis, Semin usually slips out of the dressing room unless one of the Russian media members is around.

Only on the few nights when Semin is the story (like after a hat trick March 18 against Tampa Bay) has he answered questions from the local media.

“The interviews in America don’t really bother me,” Semin said through an interpreter. “I know a few words, enough to talk to the guys in the locker room, but that is kind of it. That is what’s important. … [Ovechkin] helps me a lot, but it also stops me from learning English because we speak Russian all the time. I would like to learn more, but I don’t have time now.”

How much English he knows and how much he lets on that he knows remains in question. During a lengthy interview, his only words in English were “NHL?” and in response to what kind of car he has — “CLS … Mercedes.”

It is most likely a combination of his lack of interaction in English and sometimes being cast in the shadow of Ovechkin, but there is a perception that Semin is shy. He deflects questions about his private life with puzzled facial expressions and vague answers.

He does let on that, without his friends and family from Russia, he gets bored during downtime away from the rink.

“He likes Crocs, and mostly he likes sleep,” Ovechkin said. “He’s not shy; he just doesn’t know English. He is not shy guy.”

One day after fighting with teammate Bryan Muir during practice, Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig walked past him and gave Semin a quick smirk.

“You’re next,” Semin said in perfect English with his customary sheepish grin.

Said Slava Malamud, a reporter for Sport-Express in Russia who covers the Caps and other Russian athletes in this country: “He is definitely more introverted than Ovechkin is, but 90 percent of the people on Earth are more introverted than Ovechkin is. You have to understand the difference in upbringing. Here is a guy from the Russian equivalent of downtown Detroit. He grew up in a Siberian town, and he has only known hockey his entire life. He is not from like what Ovie is — a privileged family. He is going to be a little bit more reserved, a little bit more to himself when he is in a public situation.

“When he is among his own element, he is a very open, nice guy. You have to understand: He doesn’t speak much English, and he isn’t comfortable conversing in the English language. He doesn’t want to say anything stupid. In public relations and learning the language, he is not as talented as Ovie, so that holds him back a lot. He’s not aloof, and he’s definitely not an anti-social person.”

Moving forward

This, of course, was not supposed to be Semin’s second year with the Caps but rather his third. When the NHL lockout started, the Caps assigned Semin to play with Portland of the American Hockey League. He did not want to and signed a lucrative contract with Lada Togliatti of the Russian Super League.

He stayed in Russia through the lockout and all of last season as well. The Caps sued his new agent, Mark Gandler, to try to force Semin to honor the contract.

McPhee said Semin received bad advice. When the subject came up, Ovechkin jumped to Semin’s defense before the interpreter finished translating the question, citing the military commitment Semin’s camp has laid out as its reasoning before.

“I don’t think he was adverse to the idea of returning,” Malamud said. “There was a lot of pressure on him to stay in Russia. There was some kind of military service caveat that they had in the law that he had to spend another year. He probably could have gotten out of it, but he is not savvy enough to do that.”

Both sides still may not agree about what happened, but Semin is under contract through next season, and there is no reason to think he won’t continue to be a centerpiece of the organization’s rebuilding plans.

“He is not the type of person who would say ‘I am not comfortable here. I am going to leave.’ ” Gandler said. “He likes the team and the coaches. There is no problem. His parents are fine, and I speak with them all the time. The only issue will be money. If we strike a deal, then he will continue to play, but if we can’t he won’t. And that is the only posturing.”

Breakout summer?

Semin may be one of the elite talents in the NHL, but he remains pretty anonymous in both this country and Canada. Part of that is because of the team’s disappointing finish to the season and the way Ovechkin absorbs so much of the spotlight.

It is the same in Russia but with a twist.

“As far as hockey goes, [Ovechkin] is the player in Russia,” Malamud said. “As for Semin, he has not played long enough or on good enough teams to be. When he played for the national team, it really did not turn out very well for him. He primarily is known in Russia for a horrible mistake he made in a game against Canada in the semifinals of the world championships [in 2005]. It was a dumb, bone-headed play in the other zone, and the Canadians came back and scored on a breakaway.”

This year the tournament is in Moscow, Ovechkin’s hometown and the biggest stage in Semin’s homeland. The Russians have not won the event since 1993. Malamud said Semin and Ovechkin likely will play on the same line.

The tournament, which starts April 27, could be Semin’s best opportunity to achieve not only success on the ice at home but also the spoils of stardom off it.

“If the team wins the world championships and he is the leading scorer, then there is no doubt his status in Russia and his endorsement opportunities would go up,” Gandler said. “He is still a young player. He goes under the radar here, and he is also kind of under the radar there. It would definitely make him a star in Russia.”

Added Semin: “I am hoping to play in the world championships first, and then I am just going to go home and relax. I don’t really have any big plans for the summer. The first thing in mind is the world championships though. It is an honor to play for the team, especially since it is in Moscow this year. It is very important.”

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