Troy Brouwer and everyone around the Washington Capitals saw overflowing talent in Alexander Semin. It was there in the highlight-reel tallies that led to his being fifth in franchise history in goals and in the sublime passing that led to his being tied for 14th in assists
But there was also the maddening inconsistency of Semin’s game.
“Some nights, you didn’t even know if he was going to come to the rink,” Brouwer said. “It’s tough to play alongside guys like those because you don’t know what you’re going to get out of them.”
For seven years, the Caps got 469 games, 197 goals and 211 assists out of Semin before the right wing signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes last summer. Even as they’re mired in last place in the Southeast Division, the Caps seem to have no regrets about letting the high-scoring Russian leave.
“We believe in what we’ve got here,” center Mathieu Perreault said. “I think for sure he’s a great player. We always miss good players like that, but I think we’ve adjusted pretty good.”
Part of the adjustment is internal. Semin’s production is gone, but so are the questions about him.
“It was tough to lose his scoring ability when he wanted to play,” Brouwer said. “But all in all, I think we’ve been doing well without him.”
Semin’s four goals and 10 assists would have him tied for second on Washington’s roster with captain and friend Alex Ovechkin. Center Mike Ribeiro, who the Caps traded for at the draft, is making $5 million and has a team-high 21 points on six goals and 15 assists.
“I think that we brought [in] a guy like Ribeiro who does things a little bit differently than him, but I think, still, he fills the gap for what Sasha did,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Obviously you’re going to miss a player of that talent, but I think we filled the hole that we did have. If we could have him on our team still, that’d be a bonus for us, but we’re not that fortunate.”
Obviously, Alzner said, Washington would love to be able to have a trio like the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, but in a sport with a salary cap that’s not always possible. “That’s a perfect world, and this is the furthest thing from a perfect world,” he said.
Even in the world where Semin played for the Caps, things weren’t perfect.
He was a plus player since 2008-09 and scored 20-plus goals every season except his rookie year. But looking at Semin’s immense talent, Brouwer wasn’t the only one who wondered what could have been.
“It can be frustrating,” said the Caps right wing who has eight goals this season. “I know there’s a lot of guys that work really, really hard to get where they are playing in the NHL, and some guys it’s a little bit easier because of their skill set. Every player’s different, every attitude is different, every personality is different.”
Say what you want about Semin’s personality and his unwillingness to do interviews in English that forced teammates to answer for him, but the 2002 first-round pick could fill the stat sheet. He’s doing that now with Carolina.
Naturally, Ovechkin said he wished his friend were still here.
“Yeah, of course. He’s a great player, good guy, but it’s a business,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes it’s not your decision to keep the players.”
It was general manager George McPhee’s decision, and he opted to sign Wojtek Wolski and Eric Fehr ($600,000 each) in addition to trading for Ribeiro.
“Every year, you lose four or five guys and you add four or five guys,” McPhee said. “And I like the way our right side is playing right now: Ovi’s got eight, Brouwer’s got eight, Ward’s got five. Fehr’s got four. He’s been on both sides. We like the right side of our lineup a lot right now. It produces and it’s big and it’s gritty.”
Semin is neither big nor gritty, but he did cost the Hurricanes $7 million. According to CapGeek, which tracks team salary caps, Washington is $6.3 million under the ceiling, close enough to bring back Semin with some minor tweaks.
But prior to the season, NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said the Caps were better by virtue of addition by subtracting Semin.
“I think the fact that Alexander Semin’s not there anymore, that’ll alleviate some of the internal tension that was felt in that dressing room because there were a lot of players on that team that thought he was a gross underachiever that didn’t want to compete on a night-to-night basis,” McGuire said in a mid-January conference call. “He’s no longer there. I think that frees up Ovechkin; I think that frees up Nick Backstrom.”
From a pure hockey standpoint, Semin’s absence makes life harder on the Caps. Backstrom and Ribeiro provide balance, but aside from Ovechkin there are no pure goal-scorers on the team.
“The more threats you have, the more it spreads out their defensive abilities,” Brouwer said.
But Alzner said the Caps filled the gaps well. Fehr’s value at $600,000 for four goals and three assists is hard to beat, and the 27-year-old has played both wings and on the penalty kill.
And from a scoring standpoint, Washington has three-plus goals from six players.
“We have Brouwer right now, who score eight goals,” Ovechkin said. “We have Wardo. The guys who don’t have that much respect from different guys, they’re still scoring. It’s kind of a nice thing for us.”
And as Adam Oates talked last week about changing the “culture” around the team, Brouwer noted that the coach doesn’t have to look up and down his bench every game wondering how to use different players.
“There’s no surprises that way,” he said. “There’s no guessing on how the team is going to play is going to play that night or who’s going to show up. You come in and you know the guys are going to be working hard, you know the guys are going to be giving it their all every night.”