in playoffs, alexander semin is the key

(photo by Brian Murphy)

The Washington Capitals hosted the home finale of the regular season against the Florida Panthers Wednesday night and while they’re still fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, it was nice to see the coaches take a “marathon” approach.

In theory, the Caps still have plenty to play for — specifically home-ice advantage all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. But coach Bruce Boudreau and friends opted to play the Panthers without the services of defensemen Mike Green, Tom Poti and Scott Hannan, as well as forwards Jason Arnott and Alexander Semin.

The fact that the Panthers have been doormats for most of the season and are barely NHL-caliber anymore after a fire sale at the trade deadline meant the Capitals were likely to win anyway, and they did 5-2.

But it’s commendable to see the Caps brain trust resting vital players down the stretch in hopes that these same contributors will play a key role in the postseason. Sure, the move could backfire and a shorthanded Capitals squad could drop a few spots in the standings, but the team has its collective eye on a larger prize.

And for that to happen, the big guns need to be well rested and ready to roll. Which transitions nicely into today’s topic of conversation.

Going back to the Caps roundtable earlier this week, in which we chatted with the best and brightest bloggers covering the Capitals, the most interesting question asked during the entire discussion was “Which non-goalie is most vital to an extended playoff run for the Caps?”

Center Nicklas Backstrom, rookie defenseman John Carlson and Hannan each received votes from our esteemed panel, with the two other bloggers opting to go with the captain, Alex Ovechkin. And while a case could absolutely be made for any of those individuals, no player is more vital to this team’s success than the enigma that is Alexander Semin.

And that statement alone should scare the hell out of everyone.

Look, I’d love to say this team’s success hinged on a player like Arnott or forward Mike Knuble, because both are veterans who know what it takes to win and, just as importantly, know what the Caps need/expect from them. They’re low maintenance guys who can be counted on when a game is in the deciding moments.

And then there’s Semin.

In the last five minutes of a tightly-contested game, no Caps fan can say with any certainty whether Semin will score the game-winning goal or take a mind-numbing penalty that ends up costing Washington any chance at victory.

Be honest; he’s even money for either scenario.

But if you take a look at the Capitals’ recent playoff history, this team only wins when Good Sasha shows up.

Take, for example, last year’s series against Montreal. Semin fired 44 shots on net and, inexplicably, not a single puck reached the back of the net.

Whether we’re talking about bad luck or not, Semin is a player who, in nearly 400 career games played, scores on 14.5 percent of the shots he takes.

So if Semin simply played to his six-year career average, he’d have scored six goals against the Canadiens last season.

Now, I am willing to give Semin a pass to a certain degree because sometimes things just don’t go your way. But I asked my buddy Neil Greenberg of Russian Machine Never Breaks to chart Semin’s shot selection for the series and I think it’s pretty telling.

Look at how often Bad Sasha settled for long-range shots — specifically from behind the face-off dot. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to know the further away you get from the net, the harder it is to score.

Put it this way, a basketball team that relies on three-point shooting is in deep troubles if the shooters go cold. But an offense that crashes the boards and thrives in the paint is much more likely to excel in the playoffs.

Hockey is the same way. Teams tighten up in the postseason. Defenses are stingier. More players are hustling to get back in their own zone. There are more bodies in the way of long-range shots, which means there are more people to block shots.

All of that is working against a guy like Semin who is content to fire away from long range because there’s less of a chance of someone thumping him than if he were to try and crash the net.

Let’s go back another series — when the Capitals faced off with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Semin was again held scoreless, although in this seven-game series he only fired 15 shots on net. But if you look again at Semin’s shot selection (again, brought to you by “Mr. Fancy stats” himself) you’ll see that nine of his 15 shots came from behind the face-off dot.

But in the first round of the 2008-09 playoffs, when the Capitals bested the New York Rangers, Semin was the difference maker. He scored on five of his 27 shots, with three of those five tallies coming from close range.

In fact, 10 of his shots fired that series came from close range, which you’d think would be incentive enough to get the guy to do it more often. But nothing is ever simple with Semin.

Fans who’ve been around a little while will recall that this current version of the Caps played in one other postseason series — falling to the Philadelphia Flyers back in 2007-08.

In that series Semin scored three goals on 28 shots. Unfortunately, the NHL’s in-depth stats (specifically the shot selection) isn’t available that far back. So we’ll just assume that that series only re-enforces my stance that good things happen when this guy buys in and crashes the net.

So if you’re a Caps fan (and honestly, why are you reading this blog if you’re not?), then the guy you better hope and pray shows up this postseason is Good Sasha.

The guy is currently making $6.7 million this season — which is $600,000 more than either one of the Sedin twins (who have combined for 192 points for Vancouver this season).

The Capitals are paying him as if he’s a superstar. Now is the time to prove he deserves it.


  1. Astro
    April 7, 2011 at 8:51 am

    To be accurate, he’s not making $6.7 mil this season, but $6. The $6.7 starts in July.

    The whole discussion, though, ignores something I read Bob Woods say last season, which (paraphrasing) was for the guys to keep taking shots then have those netcrashers do just that for the rebounds. One thing from the Habs series I witnessed numerous times was either the lack of anyone there or they were turned the wrong way and the Habs got the rebound (one burned in my mind is Belanger standing right in front of the net, faced the wrong way while the puck twirled free just behind him after Semin shot it). I remember some times Semin shooting and charging in because no Cap was there, but a Hab was and got the rebound first.

    This also ignores how Semin often was doubleteamed and either needed to shoot before losing the puck (so what do you want him to do? Stick-handle more and lose it or try to get a shot off for a rebound, if nothing else?), hoping for netcrashing rebounds, or pass, but frankly, the passing option often wasn’t there, either. He seems to be the kind, too, that if he does not have confidence in the ability of a linemate to take his pass and execute, he’d just as soon do it himself (and this can be true of NHL players! And it can just be situational). I’m hoping it will be different this year with Arnott and Sturm.

    Finally, this whole shot selection/quality issue seems a bit bogus. Unless you are down there on the ice looking at your options as they are happening at lightning speed, it’s really impossible to say a player would have been better off waiting to shoot or moving in closer, etc. When they do that, everyone yells, “You waited too long! Shoot the damn puck!” When they shoot it, the bloggers go, “Oh, his shot selection is poor.” I am sure that Semin and the other players are pulling out their shot menu as they play and looking at the precise selection that will do the job in that instant. Just enjoy the game!

  2. Rob Y.
    April 7, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Murf — you had it at “Put it this way, a basketball team that relies on three-point shooting is in deep troubles if the shooters go cold. But an offense that crashes the boards and thrives in the paint is much more likely to excel in the playoffs.”

    Storm the Crease baby! If you notice, the team has done a better job of that this season and last night’s game was another indication. I’m anti three pointers in basketball (Butler’s failure on Monday night was partly due to this, but that’s another story) and against perimeter shots in hockey.

    So thanks for mentioning that!

  3. J. F. Rooks
    April 8, 2011 at 7:36 am

    While this is an interesting argument, I have to concur with Astro. I think there are a great many more variables at play than simple shot selection and distance. It has been a reoccurring theme with the Caps (particularly this season) that we have failed to have players well positioned by the net to pick up rebounds and help send shots home.

    To further evaluate these shots, I think you would also have to include other player placement on the ice in relation to the shots. Where were other [Caps] players positioned on each of those shots? Were these really far out shots, or were other players possibly in a position to pick some of them up? But again, most of us could analyze this stuff forever! 🙂

    On the other hand however, I do think most Caps fans struggle with Semin’s on-again/off-again style of play, and we all want some kind of explanation – ok, ANY kind of explanation. When he is ‘on’ he is a phenomenal player, but when he is ‘off’ he makes us all growl with frustration. I concur that we are paying him a very handsome salary to play like a superstar, but his inconsistency is frustrating.

    I was hoping Arnott was going to be a good foil for Semin since Arnott implied after his first game with the Caps that maybe some of the problem [with playing with Semin] was that noone really communicated well with Semin and that’s what Arnott planned to do. Again, a small piece of the Semin ‘enigma,’ but I will hope for anything that makes his play more consistent.

    Either way – I think we all can agree that we want ‘Good’ Semin to show up for the playoff run and play the amazing hockey we have all seen, and that ‘Bad’ Semin takes a break for a while.

  4. b murf
    April 8, 2011 at 7:56 am

    “To further evaluate these shots, I think you would also have to include other player placement on the ice in relation to the shots.”

    Does it really matter where the other four players are standing around on the court while Gilbert Arenas is jacking up 30 footers?

    No. Because bad shots are bad shots. Why folks are trying to over-think it, I’ll never know.

  5. dave
    April 8, 2011 at 8:47 am

    From the circles in is prime scoring territory — especially for a guy with Semin’s shot. I count roughly 30 of his 44 shots in the Habs series as being great areas to shoot. This chart doesn’t tell a story. Montreal did a phenomenal job blocking shots in that series. And in such a case, yes, you need more dirty goals. But Sasha is not Mike Knuble. His goals are still going to mostly be pretty. Let’s hope a few more of them find the twine or at least juicy rebounds for the grittier forwards on the team to put in the net.

  6. feeya7
    April 8, 2011 at 9:01 am

    No offence, but the “shot selection” argument makes no sense. The ranger’s series he had 11 shots inside the circles, pens 7, MTL 11. So he clearly put as many shots on net close-in during both rags and MTL series, so that doesn’t seem to explain the difference. Plus it also doesn’t account for his two goals outside the circles.

    First, I agree that there needs to be more shots from inside, by everyone. But Sasha is prolly the skinniest, weakest hockey player on the planet, and makes his living from sniping, not net crashing. Second, Sasha putting shots on goal from outside is exactly what he should be doing, allowing for rebounds and tip-ins (when hes not deeking his way to highlight reel goodness).

    Lastly, I agree that Sasha is the key to the playoffs. I say this because of the last reason you mention and that is his salary. If Ovie is our Crosby, then Semin needs to be our Malkin. Ovie will produce, that we can be sure, but if our second highest paid player isn’t, then the Caps won’t go anywhere.

  7. KillerK
    April 8, 2011 at 9:08 am

    I’ll give you that Semin is important for post-season success…but I don’t think shot selection is the key for him. What I worry about is his compete level. When he shows up to compete he’s a monster. In games when he initiates contact and fights for space he dominates. Unfortunately, we only see that side of him way too few times throughout the regular season. I’m hoping Arnott keeps Shasha’s head in the game and tells him how important it is for him to compete every shift.

  8. Doug
    April 8, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Ive got to say looking at the shot chart there are only a handfull of low percentage shots. The top of the circle for a shooter like Semen is higher scoring area especially if its from the center dot out. Not so much from the center dot to the boards ,because of the angle. From the chart I see maybe 11 shots the were lower quality chances. (against Montreal).

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