Wednesday, November 4, 2009


There is perhaps no greater enigma in the NHL today than Washington's own Alexander Semin. Originally selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Semin's early career showed promise before being derailed by a series of questionable decisions off the ice (a missed flight, failure to report to Hershey, missing a year due to 'military obligations'). Since then, while the product on the ice has often been a display of stunning offense, it has been interspersed with periods of 'bonehead-itis'. With Ovechkin on the mend for a while, many are looking to Semin to show his true potential.

Semin seems to be a quiet person. He prefers to play the ‘Teller’ to Ovechkin’s ‘Penn’. He’s been more accessible recently, with the influx of Russian-speaking media members assigned to the Caps (Dmitry Chesnokov), and made some news last season with his opinion of Sidney Crosby. His opinions, like his game, are distinctly Russian. His style is a hybrid of Alexander Mogilny and the Pavels, Datsyuk and Bure. His hands are super-soft, his skating is effortless, and his shot…well, we’ll get to that.

In his rookie year, it seemed like Semin would be a player in the mold of Peter Bondra; not the best passer but certainly an exceptional shooter. His second and third seasons did little to sway that opinion. But a funny thing happened last season: Semin’s passing ability went through the roof. His vision seemed to come into focus and suddenly the passes he rarely ever attempted in previous seasons were not only going tape-to-tape, but we getting him assists. His game was beginning to round out. Semin also started getting time on the Penalty Kill and showed his above average defensive skills. His knack for the well-executed take-away led to scoring chances that would normally have vanished into the defensive zone.

While Alex was enjoying a career season in all areas of his game, he was also on his way to a slightly less appealing career high: Penalty minutes per game. Late in shifts, Semin became prone to using his take-away skills more and his skating ability less. The stick penalties increased, putting the Caps down a man. Like Ovechkin, Semin started taking long shifts that his body simply wasn’t able to handle if a defensive situation arose. So far this season, those penalties have taken a noticeable drop (1.24 to .5 PIMs-per-game). Semin is currently on pace to set career highs in goals and assists and career lows in PIMs.

One other frustrating aspect to Semin’s game quietly crept up as the season progressed: his tendency to attempt One-on-One moves to get around defenders. His signature toe drag, one of the most sublime of any player in the NHL, began to be used on what seemed like every other rush down the ice. Rather than continue in a skating lane or dump the puck into the corners and fight for it, Semin began seeking out defenders and attempted to deke them. Rather than creating time and space for his teammates, Semin was being more and more selfish with the puck, even as his assist totals increased. So far this season, Semin’s take-aways are down but his give-aways are up. While he’s no longer reaching for pucks and taking penalties, he is using his toe-drag more and more frequently to mixed results.

The thing to remember about Semin’s toe drag is that it can be used for good or for evil. It is not a high-percentage move in attempting to make a defender commit. A well-timed poke check easily leads to odd-man breaks back up the ice and scoring chances against. When used to create space and separation for Semin’s uniquely amazing shot, it is a thing of pure gold.

Alex Semin almost always shoots his modified wrist shot off the wrong foot (the right foot for a right-handed shot) but the torque he generates by kicking his left foot is immense. Directly following his toe drag, Semin seems to be almost vertical, leaning to his right as if to get his stick parallel to his body. Only the toe of his stick is touching the ice and the puck is generally no more than a foot or so behind his right foot. It’s generally right at the height of the toe drag that Semin unleashes his shot: totally unexpected, incredibly hard and usually quite high. I’ve never seen a simple wrist shot break NHL glass, but Semin has done it on numerous occasions. The only problem with the shot is its tendency (since it comes directly off the toe) to fly high of the net.

Yet, with all that talent in his possession, something has been missing. Whether it’s the constant oneupsmanship of Semin, Ovechkin, and Backstrom or a general philosophy about offense, it needs to change. In the already linked article, Semin has this to say about offense:

And in Russia people like beautiful hockey, and not dump and chase. I just don't get it, why when a player is skating up the ice and no one is attacking him, he dumps the puck into the offensive zone and then chases it? Why would you do this if there is no one forechecking you? I understand that if there is someone coming at you and you don't know whether you can get past that player, then you can dump the puck, pass it or shoot. But if not, then hold on to the puck, skate forward, create a chance.
Why would you want to dump the puck and then chase after it and crash into the boards? I don't know. But that's just my opinion.
Hopefully Semin will realize that with the teammates he has, sometimes dumping the puck in and gaining numbers will lead to more scoring chances than taking the skating lane and ending up 1-on-3. In my opinion, Semin has the potential to equal, if not surpass, Alex Ovechkin. Oddly enough, all it seems is missing is the ability to simplify his game and exercise a small amount of restraint.

Will we see Super Semin, or the Toe Drag Monster?

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