The polarizing return of former Caps winger Alexander Semin

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Photo - Matt Slocum/AP 
Forward Alexander Semin left Washington last summer to sign a one-year, $7 million contract with Carolina.
Matt Slocum/AP Forward Alexander Semin left Washington last summer to sign a one-year, $7 million contract with Carolina.
Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

There have been few more polarizing figures in Washington sports over the years than former Capitals forward Alexander Semin. He is an all-world talent, arguably the most skilled players in the NHL, but one with a penchant for frustrating lapses of concentration that infuriated some teammates as much as some fans.

Semin finally departed after seven seasons, signing a one-year, $7 million contract with the rival Carolina Hurricanes last summer. It appeared that on both sides the relationship was finished and Washington didn’t put up a fight to keep him, according to multiple league sources. Semin makes his return to Verizon Center on Tuesday. But it won’t exactly be with open arms from everyone.

“Some nights you didn’t even know if [Semin] was gonna come to the rink,” Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. “It’s tough to play alongside guys like those because you don’t know what you’re gonna get out of ‘em.”

Those are strong words. But maybe Brouwer feels less reason to keep his barbs in-house. He only played with Semin for one season, after all. Remember, former teammate Matt Bradley had a similar take on Semin after leaving the Caps following the 2010-11 season to sign with the Florida Panthers. But he later apologized to Semin in person, too. They were teammates for six years.

Those aren’t universal opinions, of course. Star winger Alex Ovechkin was good friends with Semin, his fellow Russian, and sometimes took criticism directed towards him personally. Ovechkin still talks with Semin once a week, he said, and will likely have dinner with him on Monday night when the Hurricanes arrived in town. He jokingly lamented that it was weird not having a fellow Russian in that locker room to converse with for the first time in years.

“Everybody knows he’s a great player and it’s not surprise for me he get that kind of success there,” Ovechkin said. “He’s great player, good guy, but it’s a business. Sometimes it’s not your decision to keep the players.”

Letting Semin go and bringing in center Mike Ribeiro in a draft-day trade wasn’t a zero-sum game. The Caps could have pushed harder to keep his otherworldly talent in Washington and tried to pair him with a legitimate playmaking center like Ribeiro on the second line for the first time since Sergei Fedorov was here. At least for this year the salary-cap space was probably there pending resolution of the NHL lockout. But even Fedorov was at the tail end of a brilliant career. From the Caps’ end losing Semin was as much about a culture change in the dressing room and on the ice as anything else.

“There’s no surprises that way. There’s no guessing on how the team is gonna play is gonna play that night or who’s gonna show up,” Brouwer said. “You come in and you know the guys are gonna be working hard, you know the guys are gonna be giving it their all every night. And then it makes the coach’s job easier because he doesn’t have to read his bench and see who’s going that night. He can just throw out the next line and stick to his game plan. It makes everybody accountable.”

Indeed, Washington has received good production from right wing, Semin’s old position. That’s skewed in part because they moved Ovechkin to that spot. He has eight goals, Brouwer has eight as well and Joel Ward has five. Of course, Ovechkin’s move has now opened a gaping hole at left wing, where Jason Chimera is on the top line and hasn’t scored a goal yet.

Eric Fehr, a player signed off the street during training camp last month, is now on the second line at left wing – though he does have four goals. Wojtek Wolski, signed for $600,000 last summer as a cost-efficient, goal-scoring replacement, doesn’t have a point in eight games or a goal in nine and has been dropped to the third line. Letting Semin go may have been about fixing a team culture grown stale and Ribeiro (six goals, 15 assists) has replaced his production at a more important position. But it was an asset lost for nothing, too. With the Hurricanes, Semin has four goals and 10 assists so far. He had 21 goals and 54 points in Washington last season, by far his lowest total since the NHL returned from the 2004-05 lockout.

“I think that we brought [in] a guy like Ribeiro who does things a little bit differently than [Semin], 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.”

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