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Why Hasn't An NHL Team Signed Alexander Semin Yet?

NHL teams have thrown out decade-long contracts to big-name free agents, but Alex Semin has not been among them. Will he stay in North America? If he does, a team will be glad they signed him.

February 20, 2012; Raleigh, NC, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Semin (28) against the Carolina Hurricanes at the RBC center. The Hurricanes defeated the Capitals 5-0. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE
February 20, 2012; Raleigh, NC, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Semin (28) against the Carolina Hurricanes at the RBC center. The Hurricanes defeated the Capitals 5-0. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE

Imagine there were three top-tier free agents on the NHL market come July 1, but 10 days later only two of them were signed.

(Okay, imagine there were four of these on the market, but only two had signed and one was in self-imposed free agent celibacy because he hopes the only franchise he has called home will last long enough for him to, well, stay home. You get my point.)

Ryan Suter had multiple bidders and signed for 13 years, $98 million. Zach Parise had multiple bidders and signed for 13 years, $98 million (and reportedly could have signed for much more). Shane Doan has multiple bidders -- perhaps 11, but definitely at least four -- and is only unsigned because he's waiting to see whether his Phoenix Coyotes will still be Coyotes through his playing days.

So what on earth is Alexander Semin's excuse?

Or rather, what on earth is the excuse for all those NHL general managers that haven't signed him?

There are many theories, and if you follow hockey closely you know most of them:

  • He has a lucrative $30 million offer from the KHL that he's waiting to see an NHL team match. (Not true, apparently. But North American hockey fans always fall for a good "that Russian just wants to go home" story, right?)
  • He is waiting to see what the course of CBA negotiations means. (Really? Because it seems like most players want to sign before that potentially salary- or term-restricting deal is signed.)
  • He wants a long-term deal, but unlike with Parise and Suter his top targets don't want to go there.
  • There are stories. You know the "stories," apparently we've all heard them. Those stories.
  • Unsubstantiated stories like he's a "complete loser," he's "not a good teammate," he's a "coach killer" and just plain "not a good guy to have around." So say pundits who have not coached or played with him but are paid to say things on TV.

True, one former teammate of Semin's bashed Semin once he was gone (this same fourth-line teammate had been let, and now has been bought out by his new team, the Panthers). But another former teammate made Semin sound like an amazing, quite coachable talent.

The critics say he's a coach killer, yet a check of the police blotter indicates he's never harmed a coach -- and, in fact, was left to run wild on offense by the latest coach the Capitals fired -- and in the 2012 playoffs he adapted to and excelled under the most conservative, stifling Capitals coach he's ever had.

The critics say he doesn't backcheck, or can't play defense or something, but a closer look at the data indicates that's not really so, or if it is even remotely so then his offense more than makes up for it. Like, makes up for it on an elite level.

Click any of those last three links, and you'll find a variety of metrics indicating Semin puts up points, and generates shots for over shots against, at a rate few players in the NHL can match. There's even a case to be made that he's been more effective than his countryman and media darling Alex Ovechkin in recent years.

It's tempting to write all of these character-based critiques off as just an anti-Russian bias that often permeates NHL hockey coverage and, well, there's probably something to that. But Russian stars who have faced that stigma before -- Ilya Kovalchuk, anyone? Pavel Bure perhaps? Crazy Ilya Bryzgalov? -- have still drawn lucrative contracts and bidding wars.

So why hasn't Semin?

The answer may be as simple as this: While NHL teams toss around decade-long contract offers like candy these days, they still recognize there is risk in these deals. And when trying to reduce risk, or at least assuage worry about that risk, humans are naturally inclined to want to "look the guy in the eye." So those deals tend to go to North Americans who speak great English and represent great star and "gritty" values in equal parts, or else to Europeans like Marian Hossa who have done the whole "playoff winner" thing all the way to the Stanley Cup Final multiple times.

Semin doesn't speak great English, is kind of awkward, and has played for a perennial favorite that has continually disappointed in the playoffs. Also: He's not Ovechkin. Shame on him.

Even Semin's most ardent defender should recognize there has been some reason for concern in his career about how much he brings to the table night after night. Yet anyone who takes an objective look at how much he's contributed -- three 30-plus goal seasons, two 70-plus point seasons, a career plus-65 with underlying stats to back that up -- would acknowledge that the man is an elite offensive talent who at age 27 deserves to be in the same 2012 free agent tier as the near-$100-million men who just signed in Minnesota.

Yet there he sits, unsigned and hardly wooed.

Maybe we've dwelt on this too much. Maybe we have it all wrong, and Semin -- he's a "character," remember? -- is just biding his time for the fun of it. Whatever the case, whenever this curious saga ends, some NHL team is going to find itself in possession of one of the best wingers in the league.