The Side Effects of Subtracting Semin

Posted February 6, 2013

Alex Semin and Braden Holtby warm up before a playoff appearance in April, 2012 (All Photos Credit: M. Richter)

When it comes to Alexander Semin, Caps fans have always been a decisive lot.  They either love(d) him, or hate(d)  him.  For every die-hard fan with Semin on their jersey, there were just as many who wouldn’t give him the time of day unless he was handing out money.  But no matter what one’s personal opinion while he wore the Washington colours, there’s no denying that Semin’s absence on the Caps’ bench has been a visible one as we close the door on their first ten games of the season.

That’s not to say that everything would be golden for the Caps if the often-streaky forward was still a part of the team.  Hockey is never that simple.  But as the Caps continue to flounder (last in the league for the second time this season, after losing to the Maple Leafs. Again), it’s hard to deny what he did for them.  Through a combination of fancy plays, goals, and, yes, his share of often poorly-timed penalties, Semin brought a consistency to the team regardless of his current scoring/scoreless streak.

In his seven seasons with Washington, the only time he produced fewer than twenty goals and under forty points was his rookie year, despite never managing an eighty-two (or even eighty) game season.  That last detail was a concern, however – he never managed to stay healthy for a full campaign.  It wasn’t a single nagging injury – the Russian star suffered everything from a foot to a shoulder injury, and the most games he played in a regular season was seventy-seven (twice).  Even with that limitation, his numbers were creditable enough to be considered a top player on the team.

Old School

The #SashaCares campaign took off during the 2011-12 season courtesy of the @AlexSemin parody account.

The #SashaCares campaign took off during the 2011-12 season courtesy of the @AlexSemin parody account.

During the reign of the much missed “Young Guns”-era Capitals, it wasn’t unusual to see Semin on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin when the team needed to kick-start their scoring.   However, it was much more common – especially in the later seasons – to see Semin holding down the fort on the second line.  Shuffling Semin allowed the Caps to spread the wealth, with players like Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera often taking his spot on the first line.  The grittier forwards were able to provide much needed pressure in front of the net, while the less-physical Semin gave the second line significant scoring depth and making it harder for teams to defend against.

With Semin now in Carolina, the role of second-line scoring machine is less obvious, though coach Adam Oates seems to prefer that set up. The question is, why isn’t the new approach working?

Line by Line

Having Semin with Ovechkin and Backstrom gave the Capitals an added boost, one which seemed nearly impossible to disrupt.  Remove Semin, and you still had the formidable talents of Ovechkin and Backstrom working together.  The trouble is, the second line isn’t quite as resilient – take away Semin’s sniping power, and production gets sketchy.

To counter the loss of Semin from the roster, Oates came up with a slightly different theory: Stock the first line with power alongside Ovechkin, and move Backstrom to the second line to beef up the offense that way.  Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked out as well as hoped (2-7-1 in 10 Games Played).

Questionable Quick Fixes

In theory, the Caps have enough scoring power to have a full-lined system, but the trouble is finding chemistry.  Last year, Semin was able to fit right in with sophomore centre Marcus Johansson, creating opportunities for both of them.  But this year, Johansson has struggled to find a comfortable or productive fit – much like the rest of the team.  MoJo scored his first goal of the season this evening, and his +/- is currently -7.

Splitting up Ovechkin and Backstrom is good in theory as well, but not when it comes at the expense of the chemistry they have together.  Oates has tried numerous line combinations, moving guys like Wojtek Wolski, Troy Brouwer, and Joey Crabb (to name a few) from line to line in hopes that something will click.  It hasn’t been a complete fail – those players have had some offensive production.  But on the whole, most of the team’s scoring has come from the bottom two lines. Chimera, Joel Ward, and Mike Ribeiro, the Capitals “third” line, lead the team in points (the only exception is Backstrom, currently three points behind team-leader Ribeiro).  Ward even leads the team in goals (4).

Context, Glorious Context

It’s never a bad thing for your third line to score (that’s what you’re paying them for, after all), but it starts to become troubling when your top six aren’t working together very well.  This isn’t to say that the Caps are doomed without the glorious Sasha Semin balancing out the second line.  Ten games out, however, what it means is that Oates doesn’t have the luxury of experimenting as much as he would like.  And that’s not his fault – in different circumstances, he would have the time needed to build around the system he wants, molding lines and personalities through the fall months.  But when it’s a forty-eight game season, everything needs to happen faster.  This year has a much smaller margin for error.

Semin’s not the only missing piece from last year, either.  Mike Knuble was another important aspect of the previous seasons, and the kind of veteran forward who isn’t easily replaced (despite his bouts as a healthy scratch under Dale Hunter).  It’s quite possible that his time on the top line served as one of the inspirations behind the current line combinations.

To make things worse, the Capitals are also currently without one of the team’s iron man – Brooks Laich.  Laich normally slots cleanly into the second line, while also factoring in significantly on the special teams – another area that the Capitals are currently having trouble with.  There isn’t a definitive timeline for Brooks to return from injury, but the fact that he has begun skating with the team is a good sign, and he’ll hopefully help the team to piece things together once he’s healthy.

Until then, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Caps to look to their own past and go with something that’s known to work – Ovechkin and Backstrom.  In the current situation, not only does it make little sense to keep them apart, but bringing the team’s two best skaters back together could help spur the team into a winning mindset.  Morale might not be everything when it comes to a team’s success, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

As for the rest of the roster, most notably the forwards, the still-visible loss of Alex Semin creates a fluid opportunity for players to show what they’re made of – whether they’re shooting for the first line or the fourth.  For the sake of the team, let’s hope someone in the Washington locker room seizes the day sooner rather than later.  Preferably against Pittsburgh on Thursday.

M. Richter contributed to this report.