Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Same Old Garbage

Alexander Semin has been the Capitals' best forward this season. You won't hear many other analysts or fans say it, but it's true. Despite being criminally underutilized (e.g., reduced minutes at even strength and the power play, playing with inferior linemates, not being used on the penalty kill) and having to play in a mind numbingly conservative, defense-first-second-and-third system installed by Dale Hunter, Semin has managed to essentially lead the team in even strength scoring rate (Perrault actually leads but largely because of Semin), Corsi, and Scoring Chance ratio (SC% as determined by Neil Greenberg). Ovechkin, Laich, and recently Jay Beagle are being given the lion's share of ice time, but it's really Semin who's being effective.

To wit, compare Ovechkin and Semin's numbers at even strength (I did not include Laich's only because he was given checking line matchups for a good portion of the year and I thought it would be unfair to compare apples and oranges, but know that Laich's numbers are fairly dismal, harder matchups notwithstanding):

There may be a basis upon which Ovechkin receives more than 10% more even strength ice time, but it is certainly not performance. The misuse of Semin is at the top of a long list of curious coaching decisions by Hunter.

On a team that has been mostly terrible all year, Semin has been remarkably effective. Everyone talks about how great Backstrom was playing before he got hurt, but Semin has a higher Scoring Chance %, a higher scoring rate, and a higher Corsi, and he did it all while having to carry around the anchor that is Jason Chimera on his line. For a guy who gets nothing but criticism from the mainstream hockey media, it's been a very good season for Alex Semin. Fans of absurd Pierre McGuire histrionics that lead directly to him being made to look the fool on national TV were given a special gift last night when McGuire harangued Semin for not "bearing down" and being "too casual" in putting a chance off the post after calmly deking Dwayne Roloson out of position. McGuire was literally screaming at Semin, who has the 11th highest goals per game average since the lockout, for not converting the chance after great work by Ovechkin earlier in the shift. The echoes of Mcguire's bloated bloviations, which included calling Semin the definition of, wait for it, an "enigma," had barely quieted when Semin absolutely ripped a one-timer through Roloson for the first goal of the game. What was that about bearing down?

Last night was perhaps the apotheosis of the misuse of Semin under the Hunter regime. In a game where a victory would have all but assured the Capitals of the playoffs, and kept them in the hunt for the division, Semin played a total of 14:11. Through two periods, in what was for the most part a scoreless game, he had played 8:10. When Jason Chimera went off for fighting in the 2nd period, Hunter, rather than change his lines or replace the winger to get Perrault and Semin (the Capitals' two most effective even strength scorers) on the ice, the coach simply chose to not play them until Chimera's penalty time had ended. It's been a stunning misallocation of resources, as was the case under the old guy, and it should not come as a surprise that the team is fighting to make the playoffs. Semin finished with 2 points in his 14 minutes, Ovechkin with none in over 22.

Semin is 53rd in the league in EVP/60 (min 50 GP). Of all the players ahead of him, only 11 have played less (Marchand, Purcell, Peverly, Bergeron, Foligno, Perrault, Voracek, Stalberg, Hudler, Pominville, Stafford). Bos, Ott, Phi, Chi, and Det all score substantially more goals than the goal-starved Capitals, and all have deeper groups of scoring forwards to apportion time, however. Semin was apparently not too happy with his ice time last night, and that makes perfect sense, but it's unclear why George McPhee doesn't feel the same way.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. I've had his back for years while everyone likes to make him the scapegoat could you imagine how bad they would be without him.

Anonymous said...

You are spot on. It is rediculous watching Semin have to play with inferior talent game after game. Worse, we then have to listen to "Caps fans" who want him shipped out, as if it would be addition by subtraction. Semin is an awesome player! Wait til he's paired with Kuznetsov next year...

imbroglioh said...

Re Kuznetsov, it's a glorious thought and I really wish he had come over this year, but I don't think he'll be in Washington next year. Couple reasons: 1) the NHL CBA severely limits how much he can make and he's now a bonafide superstar in Russia and the SKA St. Petersburg if not the league itself will do whatever they can and pay whatever it takes to keep him; 2) KHL training camps start in July and there will be no new NHL CBA by then. With the specter of a lockout coming, Kuznetsov will be left with little choice but to take a mega deal than sign with Washington for what may end up being only half a season and half a season's salary. It sucks, but unlikely to see Kuzya in the league next year. He's probably a top 10 NHL forward in points in the right situation.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I am also a big Semin fan and really wondered why Hunter didn't play him more in the last game. Didn't he notice that Semin was on fire? I probably cost them the game. Do you think the Caps will resign Semin? I can't image how bad this team would be without him, but I would secretly love to see him on a good team with a good coach (but not in the KHL)!

imbroglioh said...

I think it's pretty unclear at this point what is going to happen to Semin next season. Caps haven't provided any significant clues, and it's hard for them to do so given the uncertainty regarding a new CBA. We do know that McPhee likes Semin - he's given him entirely reasonable deals his whole career and he's publicly said the right things about him. He's even the guy who came up with the Semin on the PK idea which worked really well until Dean Evason blew it up (I suspect that Evason is a big part of the problem with why Semin is not used properly). Why McPhee doesn't tell his coaches to use Semin properly, I really don't understand.

I think we also know that Semin's value as a UFA won't be as high as it should because, frankly, the people in management in the NHL aren't very sophisticated and are still beholden to narratives that suggest Semin is an enigma or doesn't care or other such nonsense.

I really don't know what's going to happen. I think Semin is really happy in Washington, but at a certain point, playing 16 min a game, not getting to play with Backstrom on the PP, not getting to play other skilled players regularly, all that has to take its toll. He's going to get a monster KHL offer in June, before he's an NHL UFA and long before there's any concrete news re a new CBA. I don't know if he'll take it, but if he does, I'll be a big fan of that team (either Salavat or SKA), and I'll be watching their games more often than Washington's next season.

Anonymous said...

I would hate it if he went to the KHL because I think it would be difficult to watch the games and to follow them since I don't speak Russian. Any suggestions of how to watch the games? Thanks!

imbroglioh said...

I hear you. It would be alot less convenient, I agree. I don't have any great ideas as to how to watch the games. I know in the past sport.ru showed some games, and I think there are probably some bootleg links on justin.tv. But the quality of these is not going to be like watching the Caps in HD from my couch. If, in fact, Semin does end up in the KHL, check back here because I will almost certainly be doing some summaries of his team's games, and I'll post some info on how to stream their games.

I think there's a decent chance he ends up back in Washington on a 1-year deal. Alot of it will depend on what happens with the playoffs and with Hunter. I wouldn't mind seeing him replace Parenteau on Long Island, as he'd score mountains of points on that team.

Anonymous said...

I've thought of possible other teams for him. I think some of the playoff "bubble" teams this year would give him a look to add offensive skill (LA, SJ, Colorado, etc.) and get them over the hump. Also Florida has the cap room and he knows Fleschman and Theodore well. He'd be a good fit there, I think. I'd also like to see him on the Lightning. Caps fans might not like seeing a line of Semin, Stamkos and St. Louis 6 times a year (but I'd love it)! I also think he'd be a good fit in Detroit playing with Datsyuk, and that would be great for his career. I know Semin has a very good agent. Hopefully, he will consider NHL teams. There should be plenty of interest in him with the UFAs this year being so thin. After Parese, Semin is the best forward available. I can't believe there won't be demand for him at a good salary. I don't think he will want to stay in DC if it is only another 1 year deal, but I agree that he would probably prefer to stay here than go to another team. But if I were a young man like Semin with a lovely girlfriend like he has who will go with him, I'd want to see more of America and live in some other places like California or Florida, etc. But we shall see!

Anonymous said...

I agree that Semin is getting unfairly screwed over by Hunter. Semin has been listening to Hunter and doing what he says. He's also been playing well when on the ice. So he should get more minutes on the ice.

imbroglioh said...

Interesting that the game after I post this Semin leads the team's forwards in ice time. My guess is that's the first time all year that's happened. Also interesting that the sick goal aside, I don't think Semin played all that great. The puck came around his side 2 time in the third where he failed to get the puck, something that rarely happens.

trendingsasha said...

I have a theory about Semin and the Caps. It starts with McPhee's endgame for him, the plan for which was in the works for at least a couple of seasons, IMO. McPhee kept Semin, he wasn't going to trade him, because he was trying to win while he had him. He was willing to pay him the higher 1-yr salaries right up until the Caps could not afford to anymore due to other players who had to be signed in 2012, and just in time for Kuznetsov to get here. I have no proof, just circumstantial evidence, published reports, and conjecture about McPhee as Machiavelli. Problem for McPhee was unexpected events, i.e. Kuznetsov not coming this season nor next, and Semin deciding he'd had about all the fun he could enjoy here.

McPhee, the organization, the management, told Semin at the beginning of last season that he would have a reduced role, no PK, less time on the PP, not playing in the last minute of a tight game, etc. Pretty curious thing to do to arguably your most talented player making a high salary. Everyone noticed it and questioned it, even people who often were critical of Semin found his misuse baffling. But, IMO McPhee's motive was to marginalize Semin on the Caps, sabotage his career, thereby making him less valuable, potentially cheaper, frustrated, and more likely to return to Russia instead of staying in the NHL after last season. Semin’s nature made him passively complicit, but it wouldn’t define the result in the end.

You see, McPhee knows Semin better than McPhee knows anyone else. Or at least he thought he did, and he did to a certain extent. McPhee knew Semin would be frustrated with a reduced role and likely show that frustration, which is what I think was happening early in the season with the excessive penalties, though some were bogus. McPhee also knew Semin would be unhappy and dissatisfied with less ice time, which he was.

Why would McPhee do this? First, IMO McPhee is quite loath to part with exquisite talent, which Semin is, baggage or not. McPhee had signed Semin to 2 successive 1-yr deals and pointedly said last season he was not going to sign any of his own UFAs during the season. Why was it different this time? Well, maybe he wanted to see results first, but really it's because McPhee had no intention at the beginning of the season of re-signing Semin in the summer 2012. McPhee was planning to replace Semin with Kuznetsov, another exquisite talent, but far cheaper.

Problem for McPhee was that he also is quite possessive of his talent, proprietary. He's like the spurned lover who kills his girlfriend: If I can't have her, then no one else will either. When was the last time McPhee let a talent like Semin, still pretty much in the prime of his career with upside, go to a rival and get nothing in return?

McPhee IMO believed that marginalizing Semin last season, using him just enough to help the Caps (but ultimately not enough!), would do 2 things: 1) create a larger divide between what Semin hoped to get and would look for in free agency, and what clubs would be willing to offer to a player with 2 consecutive down seasons; and 2) reduce the number of clubs that would even be interested in Semin because they could find another player who was less peculiar for the recent production. And McPhee, knowing Semin as he thought he did, assumed that Semin would only be interested in going to another club if it had at least 1 Russian and was in a metropolitan area. I imagine McPhee didn't feel too badly about this because he also knew that Semin could always go back to Russia to play and probably would once he realized he was not going to get anywhere near the money he wanted, especially from a club he'd be willing to sign with. McPhee's concern about Semin going to a rival, particularly with nothing in return, would be minimized in this scenario.

Part 1; part 2 to follow

trendingsasha said...

What McPhee didn't plan on, though, was Kuznetsov deciding not to come here in 2012, nor in 2013 for that matter. Now what would McPhee do about a top 6 winger to replace Semin? For one thing, now that McPhee had marginalized him and reduced his value, he might actually be able to keep Semin for cheap as a last resort for both player and the club. You'll remember how McPhee never closed the door on re-signing Semin this summer as he did on a few other UFAs. I believe even though there may not have been any real offer on the table from the Caps (because why would they? They'd wait to see what others would offer, that's why!), I think they were kept in the loop and told Gandler to circle back to them before finalizing anything. Not long before Semin signed with the Canes both Joe B. and Alan May said in interviews they would not be surprised if Semin ended up back with the Caps. If the choice for Semin came down to going to the KHL or re-signing in DC to stay where he was comfortable, then McPhee probably banked on the latter. I also have questions about the perpetuation of the whispering campaign against Semin, as well as the continued denigration of his production last season, as if 21 goals was the sum of his contributions. Moreover, it's a pretty poor way to marginalize a player you drafted 10 years ago who has been one of the most productive in franchise history. Finally, it's disingenuous to do so when you set him up to fail: expected more production from him, yet purposefully did not put him in situations to succeed as he had been in years past. Can you say Catch 22?

However, Semin had other ideas. Reportedly, Semin decided in February that he was going to go to free agency no matter what. He was frustrated, he had been misused, mismanaged, and marginalized unwarrantedly. His career was dying in Washington. He also decided he really wanted to stay in the NHL even though he could probably make much more money in the KHL.

Semin is at a point in his career, and perhaps personal life, where he wants a long-term deal, wants some stability. By all reports, he was willing to sign with a team that would offer him that. However, it was not to be, not yet, anyhow, due to all of the outrageously negative publicity about him, and you all know about that. Carolina had also heard it. But Carolina also did something else: they looked hard at objective analyses of how Semin plays the game (isn’t that what a GM should really want to know?) and how he contributes. Guess what? He contributes a hell of a lot, he makes his linemates better, he’s a puck possessor, and he creates lots of scoring chances (of course, anyone following Greenberg already knows this; guess McPhee didn’t). Rutherford also talked to Boudreau at length. I just imagine that Boudreau might have told Rutherford that Semin was set up – to fail. Maybe not in so many words, but maybe by saying he wasn’t used the way he should have been and that was a management decision. Whatever McPhee thought might be good for the organization in the long run was not good for the team last season. It also was decidedly not good for Semin and his career. Moreover, IMO, it was duplicitous and manipulative, akin to throwing a game.

In the end, though, Semin surprised most people, and I suspect McPhee was not pleased that his plan backfired. Semin signed another 1-yr deal (not long term), with a team without a single other Russian (as opposed to the Caps or other teams with at least one), in a smaller market and city that is not quite the metropolitan area DC is (is there a Russia House? Russian Orthodox Church?), and, most of all, a division rival against whom Semin is known as “the Cane killer.” Guess he’ll be a “Cap killer” now! Let me just say, I don’t think Semin would have gone back to the Caps under any circumstances given how management purposefully misused him.

Part 2; part 3 to follow

trendingsasha said...

Part 3, final

McPhee is left still with a big hole in his top 6 (adding Ribeiro is great, too bad not in time for Semin, but 2C was a hole in and of itself), his top end talent is now with a division rival, and McPhee got absolutely nothing in return for him except cap space. McPhee may or may not use some of that cap space to replace Semin (Wolski is not a replacement), or he may just make do this season, give Galiev some test runs (I like him a lot!), but otherwise just wait until 2013-14 for Forsberg and Galiev to be more NHL ready. In 2014, I am sure he’s counting on Kuznetsov.

On Semin’s part, it seem pretty clear that he wants to prove all of the negative views wrong and is willing to put himself in a new situation that will be less comfortable, to do so. Carolina has been straightforward about their intentions: if it’s a relationship that works for both parties, then they will be interested in that long-term deal Semin was looking for initially. I hope he scores against the Caps every single game and makes McPhee regret his miscalculation.

I’m heartbroken he’s gone. Now I have to get Center Ice to watch the Canes.

imbroglioh said...

Trendingsasha -

Many thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think it's an interesting theory, but I think there's probably a simpler explanation: McPhee, like most of his colleagues, doesn't really know what he's doing. That's maybe too harsh and broad a brush to paint them with, but I think they don't properly value a player like Semin and too easily rely on certain traditional ways of thinking about player contribution, e.g., valuing hitting and interacting with teammates, two things that Semin doesn't really do and two things that I'd argue add very little to a hockey player's contribution.

McPhee allowed his coach to basically not play Semin meaningful minutes in important games down the stretch when the playoffs were in doubt, and he allowed his coach to not let him get on the ice during a late pp in game 7 against the Bruins. IIRC Semin also didn't see the ice in late gm7 pp against the Rangers. Semin's been the team's most productive pp player since the OV era. I can only conclude that McPhee did this not because of some nuanced, nefarious strategic plan vis-a-vis Semin and Kuznetsov and cap allocation and whatever else, but only because he didn't sufficiently realize that having Semin on the PP gave his team a significantly higher chance of winning. Same exact discussion with respect to Semin and the PK.

I'm excited to see him on the Canes. I think it'll be a good fit in that they don't have the depth of skill up front, so he should be given much more chance to succeed and to play with good players. I don't think too much of either Staal, but they're at least a marked improvement from Chimera and Perrault. It's just a crime what the Caps did to him, but at least I'm much more excited going in to this season than last.

trendingsasha said...

Imbroglioh --

Thank you for your thoughts & your blog! Well, it could be he doesn't know what he's doing, but I just don't buy it given the history with Semin. If Semin hadn't been used more on the PP & on the PK previously with success, then I could buy ignorance. But, the fact that last season started with McPhee, the organization, not the coaching staff, telling Gandler and Semin he would have reduced time and role is more than suspicious. It's nonsensical unless there's an ulterior motive, which I firmly believe there was. I think McPhee had a plan in place for Semin ever since he drafted Kuz. The most McPhee would have ever signed Semin for was 2 years, but 1 at a time worked just as well for his purposes. Now that I look back on the whole season & what transpired, McPhee never had any intention of re-signing Semin, thought he'd be forced to Russia, but Kuz not coming made him reconsider 1 more year for cheap, hence never saying definitively he's wasn't coming back. McPhee also said with great meaning that a team would have to be the right fit for Semin. In McPhee's mind that probably was the Caps or KHL. I don't think he ever imagined Semin would voluntarily go to Carolina.