|Alexander Semin is paying off for the Carolina Hurricanes. (Usatsi)|
When the NHL's free-agent market opened last July, Alexander Semin was one of the best, most talented and most productive players available.
And nobody seemed to want him.
Teams were not only afraid to make any sort of investment in him, few seemed to show any real interest in even potentially signing him. Words like "enigma" and "coach killer" and "lazy" were thrown around by analysts. The TSN crew absolutely destroyed him on live TV during one particularly harsh session. Former NHL coach Marc Crawford referred to him as "a complete loser," and Pierre McGuire called him "the ultimate coach killer."
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Back then, it seemed obvious that his value was at rock bottom. And that was going to be a benefit for the team that was willing to sign him. It was going to come away with one hell of a hockey player.
That lucky team was the Carolina Hurricanes.
Through the first month of the season, their one-year, $7 million contract is looking like a very wise investment. Semin's addition to the lineup -- along with the draft-day trade for Jordan Staal -- is one of the main reasons the Hurricanes enter the weekend in first place in the Southeast Division and have a chance to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs after falling short in each of the past three seasons.
To look at Semin's box-score stat line and see just three goals and eight assists in 15 games probably doesn't blow you away. But when you watch him play and see how much of a force that the Hurricanes' top line is every night thanks in part to his presence, it's easy to see what an impact that he's making.
He's playing with skill and creativity -- just ask Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who was left helpless on this set-up on Thursday night -- and he's advancing the play up the ice as the same dominant possession player that he has been throughout his career. He has always been an underrated defensive player (probably because he doesn't fly around and hit people, and because it "looks like" he should be doing more) with a wonderful ability to create turnovers, and that aspect of his game is still there.
When Semin, Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty have been on the ice this season during 5-on-5 play, more than 53 percent of the shot attempts and more than 70 percent of the goals have belonged to the Hurricanes. That's pretty dominant, one-sided play. It's the definition of "tilting the ice." And they've done all of that damage while drawing some of the toughest matchups on the team, making their play even more impressive.
And this isn't a new development for Semin. He has always been that type of player, and the Hurricanes knew it. Shortly after Semin signed, Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford spoke to Bob Wage at Canes Country, and he offered some fascinating insights as to what they were looking at when they decided to sign him.
"The stats we look at provide much more detail," Rutherford said in July. "Jason [Karmanos] looks at this, and the stats show how a player performs under certain circumstances. If he can perform under pressure, at the end of the game, with the score tied and against the best competition. The results of our analysis show that this player performs right at the top of most categories."
But what should really be encouraging for the Hurricanes is that Semin's goal-scoring production is probably due for a spike. While he has just three goals total and only one at even-strength, he's generating a ton of chances and shots. This season, he has already recorded 38 shots during 5-on-5 play, the most on the team. Only one of them has gone in for a shooting percentage of just 3 percent.
We know this much about shooting percentages: They wildly fluctuate during the season with hot streaks and cold streaks mixed in for teams and individual players alike. A player like Semin, who has converted on 14 percent of his even-strength shots since the start of the 2007-08 season, isn't going to be stuck at 3 percent for very long. Don't be surprised when some of his luck changes and he goes on a goal-scoring tear in the not-too-distant future.
Corey Sznajder had a great look at Semin's shooting luck this season over at the Hurricanes blog The Shutdown Line on Friday.
An explanation I've heard regarding Semin's shooting percentage is that he doesn't go to the "dirty areas" to score and he shoots from basically everywhere. It's true that Semin isn't a crease crasher, but that hasn't exactly stopped him from finding the back of the net in the past. Semin's average shooting distance during five-on-five play isn't much different from what it has been over his career, which indicates that his three goals in 14 games is due to bad shooting luck more than anything else. I'm sure many would like to see Semin crash the net more often but he doesn't really need to do that with Eric Staal on his line.
Great points, all of them. But particularly the part about the distance from which Semin is putting pucks on the net this season. His average shot distance during even-strength (using Greg Sinclair's amazing shot application) is just over 37 feet. That's right in line with where he has been over the previous four years, when he shot from distances of 34.3, 34.1, 34.1 and 32.7 feet.
His 17 goals at even-strength last season were scored from an average distance of exactly 37 feet. So the locations of his shots this season -- and he's generating a lot of shots -- aren't really a problem. He's getting his chances, and sooner or later they're going to start finding the back of the net. And Carolina should became an even better team when it happens.
There have been no rumblings about Semin being a "coach-killer" or a "loser" in Carolina. Actually, the early returns have been positively glowing.
The Hurricanes were willing to take a chance on talent and grabbing an undervalued, overlooked commodity when 29 other teams were scared off -- many of whom could use a top-line winger like Semin -- and they are reaping the benefits, much the same way the Los Angeles Kings did when they took on a couple of bad locker room guys that you can't win with in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
The lesson here: Don't be afraid of talent.