The nature of pro sports is it’s ever-evolving rosters. It appears likely that Capitals forward Alexander Semin, the mercurial, skilled, sometimes maddening Russian who is the longest-tenured player on the team, may not be back with the organization next fall.
Semin, 28, was a 2002 first-round draft pick by Washington. He played in 52 games in 2003-04 at age 19, stayed home during the 2004-05 lockout instead of reporting to AHL Portland and then missed another full season after he claimed compulsory military service kept him in Russia for another year. But since returning for the 2006-07 season, Semin has scored 197 goals and been a key cog in the Caps’ success.
The relationship may have run its course, however. Mark Gandler, Semin’s agent, told ESPN the Magazine on Monday that his client, an unrestricted free agent, will test the open market on July 1. But in a conversation with the Examiner on Sunday afternoon, Gandler did not completely rule out a return to Washington. Semin has long been comfortable here, after all, and, according to sources, had never pushed for a trade.
“Trying to give you some specifics on those different issues, I’d just be speculating,” Caps general manager George McPhee said when asked about the team’s desire for Semin to return. “So you’ll know just after I know as we move along here and get things done. And every summer is a challenge in these jobs. But there’s never a summer where you don’t have anything to do.”
Semin’s presence might be necessary after top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, 19, informed Washington he will remain in the KHL, according to McPhee. That could be for as long as two years – although no official announcement has been made. Either way, it deprives Washington of a relatively cheap potential replacement for Semin. Kuznetsov has a similar skillset and was recently ranked the No. 1 prospect in the world by The Hockey News.
But it is also clear that Semin is unhappy with his role here after averaging 16 minutes, 47 seconds of ice time per game – the lowest total since his rookie year (12:37). Semin has shown an aptitude for playing on the penalty kill in years past, but this season under Dale Hunter, and Bruce Boudreau before him, he was used just 1:09 when down a man – total. This is a player who saw decent short-handed ice time last season (61:23), in 2009-10 (71:40) and in 2008-09 (94:14). Semin was also rarely employed by Hunter in late-game situations when a lead had to be held. Of course, Hunter is no longer his coach, either, after stepping down on Monday. That could have an impact depending on who the replacement will be.
Now the big question: What is the market going to bear? Semin made $6.7 million this season on a one-year deal signed in January, 2011. That was a strategic move done in part because of the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations with the NHL Players’ Association and the owners. Semin could certainly generate a significant contract offer from a team in the Kontinental Hockey League so there is leverage there.
But it’s unclear if there is an NHL team willing to match his salary from this past season. Is he willing to take a pay cut to stay in North America? How comfortable will he be in another market? Semin has long been sheltered in Washington, where he does almost no English-language interviews and so rarely speaks to reporters. But he can absolutely speak well enough to communicate with teammates and coaches.
Still, Semin routinely wows teammates and opponents with his pure skill. He has one of the game’s best wrist shots, soft hands and elite stick skills that sometime leave him overconfident and lead to penalties. He scored 21 goals this season and had 33 assists. It was his second consecutive 54-point season. Three other times he’s topped 73 points. Semin has been known to sit with injuries some teammates feel he could play through – three times missing 19 games or more in a season. Yet he matched a career-high with 77 games played this season and still cut his penalty minutes from 71 to 56.
“Of course. Of course. I want to see everybody back next year, but again I hope [Semin is ] going to stay here, I don’t want to leave him,” teammate Alex Ovechkin said. “But again it’s George’s decision, it’s Sasha decision, it’s Sasha’s agent decision…It’s pretty hard, but it’s a business. Everybody wants to be successful in this business and sometimes you have to make hard decision to be successful.”
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