Eye Test: The always maddening Alexander Semin
Alexander Semin is lazy.
This article will not go to great pains to prove that statement. He does not fit the Cody Franson/Alex Ovechkin category of quirky players who spur debate about their worth because their playing style obscures their considerable effort and talents, and his frequent lack of effort has never really been disputed. After all, this is the same Alex Semin about whom former teammates in Washington said, "He didn't have the best work ethic," and "Some nights you didn't even know if he was going to show up to the rink," and "... for whatever reason, [he] just doesn't care. No one has ever accused him of being a dynamo night in and night out.
Unlike the arguments surrounding Franson and Ovechkin, the previous subjects of this column, the Semin debate has never fully engaged his performance. It involves two sides talking past one another and failing to see that each has a valid point. Granted, one camp has cited statistics (we'll get to them in a bit) to refute the popular negative perception of the Russian winger, but those numbers are used to avoid a particular reality about him. Unlocking this disconnect while making a real case for Semin requires accepting some unpleasant things about his game while confronting a philosophical question about how we watch sports.
Let's back up, though. The Semin question resurfaced recently when Carolina's first-year coach Bill Peters benched him in the third period of the Hurricanes' 4-1 loss to the Canucks on October 28 and for the next two games after that. At the time, Semin had produced only two points in eight games, so his healthy scratch triggered a reflex on Twitter among a certain type of hockey fan that is quick to point out that his underlying numbers—puck possession and shot attempts—were good.
But Semin was not benched just because of his lack of scoring, though that certainly made it easier. He earned his down time by turning in a breathtakingly weak skating performance:
And the last two things that Semin contributed to Carolina's cause before his extended stay in the press box were an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, while down 3–0 early in the third period, for cursing out the referee (no easy feat) and this, ahem, achievement in forechecking:
Regardless of the specifics of his performance, though, the reaction was telling. The analytics crowd has long cited Semin's unimpeachable statistics in direct response to questions about the winger's drive. But the statement "Semin is a statistically great player" does not refute or even vaguely challenge the statement "Semin has a poor work ethic, which prevents him from reaching his potential."
The statistical case for Semin is a half-argument, and in order to engage it we have to consider one of two possible complimentary statements: "Alex Semin is already so good—as proven by statistics—that any theoretical ceiling he's not reaching will challenge credibility." Or: "Alex Semin is already so good—as proven by statistics—that we should just appreciate him for the great player he has become." In other words, don't be expect too much.
Consider the first statement about his talent and potential. It carries some persuasive power. For much of his career, Semin has produced at the rate of one of the five or 10 best players at his position in the entire world. Could he really be better than he was when he posted 40 goals and 44 assists in 73 games in 2009-10? How much better, really?
Semin's frequent lethargy and streaks of under-performance also seem odd given that nearly every one of his linemates has benefited from his presence, both in terms of possession play and scoring opportunities. Those numbers suggest a player for whom the popular perception fundamentally misses something—and this column is all about finding things that really look worse than they are.
To closely watch and appreciate Semin, however, means reconciling his very real laziness with his obviously good play, not his overblown laziness with his subtle skill. In that fateful match against the Canucks, he mostly glided around the ice with the urgency of someone strolling under the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. He was usually the last forward in either Vancouver's or Carolina's zone, and by a noticeable margin of time.
Yet, when he finally got into position, it was a good position. He made amazing stick-handling plays to get over the blue line at less than full-speed and he distributed very creative and crisp passes from a complete standstill, which seemed to have the dual purpose of saving him from having to skate the puck himself and springing his teammates on excellent scoring chances. He's a great facilitator with amazing stick skills. He barely skated with the puck at all in this game, but his passing was good enough for him to get away with it. Still, if he tried to turn to some of those touches into scoring plays with his skating and deking ability, he certainly would be a more productive player.
I also ended up believing the statistics that say he makes his team better when he's on the ice. But I concluded, as a thought experiment, that a forward line of three Semin clones would get caved in by a clone line of many statistically inferior players. Semin's lax play is enabled by the effort of his teammates, which is not to say that his linemates carry him. Rather, Semin's game, while it can elevate and complement four other hustling players, would fail as a template for a team. The Semin clones just wouldn't go north-south fast enough. They would lose too many puck battles and wouldn't have the same space to operate without hard-charging teammates creating it for them.
But so what? He fails to meet some purely theoretical tests I've invented, but on the ice he is obviously an asset. He's lazy, but still worth his money (five years at $7 million per season). He does make his teammates better. All of which leads to the second possible argument for Semin: "We should just appreciate him for the great player he already is."
This case, too, can seem persuasive. He's not performing brain surgery or any other societally vital task—he's a hockey player! He does some pretty amazing things when he's not skating at the speed of biological evolution. Maybe if his detractors would take five seconds to stop burying this guy, they might find things to enjoy in his game. And isn't enjoyment the main reason why we watch sports?
If you want to defend Semin as fun to watch or as a Lebowski-esque slacker hero, more power to you. If you want to defend him just to tick off the pundits who are so quick to single out lazy Russian players while giving lazy Canadians (e.g. Jason Arnott) a pass, good for you. But please understand that the opposing viewpoint is valid, too.
Justin Bourne, who generally does a great job at The Score of dousing the abstractions of the stats crowd with the cold water of locker room reality, made a mostly correct defense of Peters' decision to bench Semin, arguing that the coach couldn't reward poor effort, even from a star, and especially not this early in the season. I would probably argue that Semin's salary sends a bigger, contradictory message to the other players on the team about the importance of effort vis-à-vis talent. And that's exactly why so many teams passed on Semin when he was a free agent in the first place, and why he considered offers from the KHL It's why my eighth-grade history teacher had this Prefontaine poster on the wall. It's why my dad, a former athlete and now a high school coach, loved Scott Nichol above all other Predators.
For every Alex Semin, talented but lazy, there's a fan or a former-player-turned-pundit watching him from the stands who would rip an arm off to be on that ice instead. They shouldn't be. Semin has earned his place and he's earned his money. Those onlookers, for lack of talent or an excess of age, don't deserve to take his place. But they are allowed to resent him.