By Stu Hackel
One of hockey's most breathtaking plays has nearly vanished from the NHL: the goal scored by a player who zips down the wing and blows a slap shot past the goaltender.
"You can't do that kind of shot today," Avalanche forward Matt Duchene told my SI.com cohort Adrian Dater at his regular Denver Post gig. "It's not going to work. The goalies are going to make the save, and you can't even take the time to wind up like that off the rush. The (defenseman) is going to get to you and take away the puck or block the shot in the time it takes you to wind the stick back."
It's true. You don't see this kind of play, a 1995 Claude Lemieux goal that overpowered Ron Hextall, too much these days.
You might see a slap shot goal off the wing, like this one by Montreal's Mike Cammalleri when there's been blown defensive coverage:
...or this one by Jeff Skinner:
Mostly, the slap shot is successful on the power play, where shooters have more time and space. At full strength, it's a rarity.
"The goalies used to stand straight up and you'd have more room to shoot at the net," Duchene said. "Now they're like this (he hunches over and spreads his body out). You have nothing to shoot at now, and the D will get a stick in there by the time you get the stick down on the puck from the wall."
Fans who have been watching the NHL since the Original Six era can recall the early days of the slap shot and the game's big shooters like Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, Bobby Hull and Andy Bathgate scoring those sorts of goals with some regularity. In the '70s, Guy Lafleur used to skate down the wing and fire it from the top of the face-off circle. Everyone in the building, including the goalie, knew what he was going to do, but he couldn't be stopped.
"The D couldn't get to the shooter like today," Scotty Bowman, the NHL's greatest coach, told Dater. "The game was more spread out, because the D had to back off more. Now, everybody can skate with everybody else. And the forwards backcheck much more. The speed of the game now just makes it so you can't take that much time to get a shot off."
"A romantic part of hockey's past is now consigned to the place of Jason-style masks, stack-the-pads saves and helmet-less players," Dater writes."But that's progress."
The Semin Enigma: Instead of the slap shot, which takes time to get away because of its big windup, we see more goals today off wrist shots. Even defensemen who shoot from the point often use the wrister because of it quicker release.
That goal inspired an email to me from reader Jack Bartram, a Caps fan since the team's first season of 1974-75. "How many players in the NHL can make that play?" he wrote. "Watch it in slo-mo... just before release, he adjusts the puck maybe a foot to elude Suter's poke, then unleashes the most wicked wrist shot, sharp angle, pinpoint to the far top corner, just a laser the goalie can just throw his hands up in the air. No chance."
But Jack, like most Caps fans, wonders about Semin, who he calls "by far, the most baffling player I have ever encountered.
"It's not that Semin doesn't care. If you've watched him enough, you see he cares. And he isn't lazy... when given the opportunity, he's one of the Caps' better PKers. Lazy folks don't survive on the PK. For years, it has been said that (Alex) Ovechkin isn't the most skilled player on the Caps, that it is Semin, and that is not hyperbole. Well, not entirely... Semin can do things with the puck that Ovie can only dream of... but Semin can also fake himself out, stumble over his skates, and sprawl into the goalie while the puck goes harmlessly awry on a penalty shot."
Jack believes that Semin's enigma is rooted in a few factors. "One is that I get the impression that Semin is a gifted hockey player who doesn't particularly care that he's a gifted hockey player. One gets the impression he'd have been happier, or just as happy, to have been a gifted pianist, or even better, a writer or painter who works in anonymity.
"And the second, I think related factor, is that Semin is physically gifted at hockey, but doesn't have a great head for the game, nor is he a great instinctive athlete. While Ovechkin could not have made the play Semin made against Nashville (not to say Ovie couldn't have scored, but he couldn't have made THAT shot like THAT), there is no way Semin could have scored some of the goals Ovechkin scored. The first goal, the one that put Ovie on the map against (I think) Phoenix, on his back with one hand on the stick and swiping it into the goal, Semin would have crashed headfirst into the endwall and been out for the year while Nashville started the break the other way. Sometimes Semin looks like a newborn fawn learning to walk.
"Anyway, I'd love to see your take on Semin sometime."
OK, Jack. Here goes: First of all, I think a number of NHLers can make that shot given the right circumstances, Patrick Kane for one, probably many more -- Jeff Skinner, Pavel Datsyuk, Kris Versteeg, Steven Stamkos, Zach Parise, Logan Couture and Tomas Vanek come immediately to mind. And Ovie can do it, too. It's a great play and a great shot without question, but when it comes to NHLers who can do that, Semin has a fair amount of company.
You may have answered part of the question yourself when it comes to Semin's "head for the game." There have been countless NHLers with great abilities who have lacked the focus or mental toughness to channel their skills. Remember, these are all young men who suddenly have lots of money, lots of fame and lots of time. They may find themselves in a different culture and unsure of their surroundings. It's easy to get distracted or go astray.
No one doubts Semin's abilities. But unlike you, I question his work ethic. I think he is lazy, especially defensively. He's forced to take lots of hooking penalties because he's not committed to playing both sides of the puck. Watch Pavel Datsyuk, who I think is the most complete player in the game and the NHL's best defensive forward. (I know in Boston they're touting Patrice Bergeron for that title, but I'd take Datsyuk.) He doesn't float, he's always around the puck when he doesn't have it and does his utmost to get it back. No one is better at stealing it off an opponent's stick, angling a puck carrier or clogging passing lanes.
Semin's offensive inconsistency reminds me of Alex Kovalev, who was one of the most gifted NHLers ever. He'd amaze teammates in practice, but was maddeningly inconsistent during games. Kovy had an even better shot than Semin, but could also disappear for long stretches, sometimes months. He could have been one of the greatest ever, but he didn't deliver on his potential often enough.
And I'm not convinced that Semin is more skilled than Ovie. Skill in hockey isn't displayed in a vacuum; it has to shine when opponents check you or make you play in traffic and Ovie is far better at that than Semin, who is not hard on the puck at all and easily eliminated, one of the reasons he appears clumsy. He needs to be more dedicated in the weight room, and work on his skating balance and resistance to physicality.
It comes down to applying yourself every shift, every game. The players who make the most of their gifts work hard in practice, take the extra time to perfect aspects of their game and don't take shortcuts. All the talent in the world won't help a player if he doesn't channel it properly. To me, Semin's no enigma. He's just not fully engaged in what it takes to make the most out of his gifts.