By Stu Hackel
It's no surprise that the Carolina Hurricanes signed Alexander Semin; GM Jim Rutherford said three weeks ago he'd explore the possibility. And it's no surprise he got a one-year contract; Rutherford and others acknowledged the player's on-ice reputation and expressed reluctance to make a longer commitment. But $7 million for that one year? That's a surprise.
The combination of the short term and high value of the contract is strange. Every GM has signed players to one-year deals, but a one-year deal at this sort of money is very unusual. If a player is worth $7 million, you typically want to lock him up for a while.
Here are some of the other players making $7 million next season, according to CapGeek.com: Jarome Iginla, Danny Briere, Mike Cammalleri, Joe Thornton, Brent Seabrook, Pekka Rinne. Semin could be, but hasn't been, in that class of NHL performer. When Columbus signed defenseman James Wisniewski for $7 million last summer, a lot of people were aghast. They are probably equally aghast at Alexander Semin receiving that number.
We've discussed Semin's situation before, as recently as two weeks ago. And Semin may have $7 million-type talent. But does he display it often enough to warrant that kind of money?
"Alex Semin is like a lot of hurricanes," tweeted Hockey News columnist Adam Proteau. "it's impossible to predict when he'll show up, & his peak season is usually in early September."
Clever, eh? Semin's peak season may or may not be in training camp, when optimism abounds and everyone gawks at his world-class shot and puck skills, touting him as a potential game-breaker. When the puck drops in earnest, however, he turns capricious. One thing has become more certain in recent seasons: Semin tends to fade over the course of the campaign -- he's generally more productive in the first half than the second half -- and he's been pretty ineffective in the playoffs.
Of course, any player is worth what someone pays him, and Rutherford felt the need to give Semin a raise over last season's $6.7 million even though his production has declined. So good for Semin and his agent Mark Gandler, who were able to take advantage of this year's relatively shallow free agent pool.
Semin's defenders trumpet his scoring consistency, and he's certainly had good seasons. In his evenhanded assessment of the Hurricanes' deal, TSN's Scott Cullen notes, "Over the last six seasons, Semin has scored 187 goals, good enough for 15th in the league, yet his 133 even-strength goals in that time ranks fifth (between Rick Nash and Dany Heatley). Over the last four seasons, Semin is plus-92, which ranks fifth in the league and highest among all forwards not playing for the Vancouver Canucks (Zdeno Chara, the Sedins and Alex Burrows are higher)."
But his goal scoring has dipped in each of the past few years, from 40 goals in 2009-10 to 28 to 21. Last season's 21-goal campaign represented his lowest total since his 10-goal effort as a 19-year-old rookie in 2003-04 -- and no one likes to see that kind of decline from a 27 year old. In addition, regardless of what the plus-minus stats say, his reputation for lazy play, both with and without the puck, doesn't match the gaudy number. And while Semin was once a regular penalty killer, his ice time with the Caps shorthanded dwindled nearly to zero last season. He plainly lost the trust of his coaches. Whatever his productivity, it gets overlooked, Cullen remarks, "because of a negative perception regarding his commitment and general demeanor."
Some of Semin's decline can be attributed to the Capitals trying to install a defense-first system in the two seasons since Semin hit the 40-goal plateau. That, no doubt, was an argument Gandler used when shopping Semin to various teams who inquired about him. Still, Semin lingered on the outside of free agency for nearly a month before he landed anywhere. And Washington, the team that knows him best -- the only one he had played for during his entire NHL career -- didn't want him back, which tells you something.
According to Gandler, it was time for Semin to move on. And perhaps a change of scenery will do wonders for this guy.
“I have no questions about him but I think the consensus is that he is capable for more than he has produced,” Gandler told Chip Alexander of The Raleigh News-Observer. “There’s no question his best is ahead of him. I do believe a fresh start is a good thing. He is one of the most responsible players in the league and the fans in Carolina will love him when they start watching him.”
People have long tried to figure out why Semin wasn't making the most of his skills, but perhaps some of it had to do with Washington. Was player-friendly coach Bruce Boudreau too soft on him? Was hard-ass Dale Hunter too rough? And what of the environment surrounding the team? The Caps have become a marquee NHL franchise with an involved and visible owner who has high expectations. The fans share those expectations, which annually have been dashed. Semin's potential was even said to exceed that of Alex Ovechkin. Maybe it was all too much. Maybe Semin will flourish in the relative quietude of Raleigh.
He'll be with a strong center in Eric Staal (at least that's the plan; the 'Canes have lots of options up front since acquiring Jordan Staal from the Penguins). Semin didn't regularly play with the Caps' top center, Nick Backstrom, but Rutherford has been searching for a scoring winger to pair with Eric Staal since he let Erik Cole walk in free agency last summer. Cole ended up leading the Canadiens with 35 goals, and if Semin produces around that level, then everyone in this deal will be happy.
Another element to consider is how well Semin might fare with Carolina coach Kirk Muller, who did a terrific job of turning the team around after replacing Paul Maurice. Muller is no softy, but could bring the right combination of toughness and understanding to get the most out of Semin. The 'Canes play an uptempo, skating style and that's the type of game that should appeal to him.
That's what Rutherford is banking on with his owner's $7 million. He spoke with Boudreau and others familiar with Semin before faxing the contract offer, so he knows the dual nature of what he's getting. If the good Semin shows up at 'Canes camp and sticks around for the whole season, it could mean a big bounce-back for the club and a new multi-year deal for the player. If the bad Semin drifts into the picture, this one-year deal could be his last with an NHL club. Hurricane Alexander would then blow offshore and probably across the Atlantic, his variable nature becoming the problem for some other team in some other league on some other continent.
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