The mystery of Sasha

March 13, 2012

I have the feeling I will be telling my son one day about Washington Capitals winger Alexander "Sasha" Semin.

Not necessarily in the way I will tell him about, say, Cal Ripken, Alex Ovechkin or Ray Lewis: great players who performed spectacular feats on the ball field (even if one of Cal's feats was being baseball's most automatic 6-4-3 double play by the end of his career).

No, I will tell him about Sasha because Semin is quite possibly the most maddening hockey player I've ever seen. I will tell my son about a man that could make defenders look silly with his skating and puckhandling skills one game and then make himself look silly the next with a horribly-timed stick foul that cost the Caps a power play goal.

Such is the enigma of Alex Semin, a man whose middle name at this point might as well be "Enigmatic Russian."

I mention Semin because he was the best player on the ice for the Caps in Sunday's 2-0 win over Toronto. It was a tantalizing performance. He didn't score a goal, but you saw the incredible skill that makes Sasha so maddening to Caps fans: the wicked wrist shot, the toe drag move, the size and power, smooth skating. At one point, Semin put on a skating/puck-protection clinic below the goal line, twisting and weaving his way open, playing a personal game of keep-away and leaving a befuddled Jake Gardiner in his wake.

You see these things from Semin and wonder how he doesn't score 40 goals every year. You wonder how he struggled so badly at the beginning of the season that then-coach Bruce Boudreau healthy-scratched him. You wonder how this guy failed to score a goal in 14(!!) straight playoff games at one point.

And you wonder why, despite his recent good play and increased point production, Caps fans and management are weary of the guy and are ready to let Semin walk after this season, probably back to Russia.

Part of it with Sasha, I think, is projection. We see his dazzling hockey talent and envision 100-point seasons filled with highlight-reel goals. With his combination of size (6'2, 210) and skill, Semin looks so good on paper. In a way, more so than Ovechkin, Semin truly embodies these Caps of the last four years: talented, flashy and skillful but too often disappointing when the money is on the table.

Personally, I watch Semin sometimes and think, man, if I could only have that guy's talent, just for one day. I'd be the sickest beer league player ever.

But that's the thing with Sasha, he seems to never want to be projected upon. Until this year, he refused to do interviews in English, even though it was clear he at least understood the language. He could be one of the best penalty killers in the league, but his penchant for offensive zone hooking penalties made Boudreau gun-shy of using him that way.

He has a sniper's gift for picking the top corner that makes you think goal-scoring should be easy for him. But Semin has never been one that enjoys getting his hands dirty down in the crease area, putting a damper on his production.

You could make the case that the biggest beneficiary of the coaching change from Boudreau to Dale Hunter has been Semin. He's gone from Petr Klima 2.0, a European gunner who melts in big spots and only occasionally feels like playing, to a sort of poor man's Sergei Fedorov, a guy who works hard at both ends and consistently puts up points without necessarily carrying the team.

Sasha seems to get it now; he's been working hard and his production has gone up. Unfortunately, its too little, too late. Short of a huge postseason, which the Caps still may not make, we're likely seeing the end of Semin in Washington. Everybody is ready to move on, even if Sasha is Ovechkin's best buddy on the team.

There was talk of moving Semin around the trade deadline, but that was far-fetched. The time to trade Semin was two or three years ago when he was scoring 30 goals, not when he's struggling to score 25. Everybody has seen the fleas on his game.

Sure someone could have used him as a rental since he's a free agent after this year, but the Caps probably would have had to take pennies on the dollar in return. And who would want to rent a player for the stretch run with such a dismal postseason record as Semin (nine goals and 13 assists in his last 30 playoff games).

No, the best thing to do is what General Manager George McPhee did: pray to whatever Cosmic General you pray to that Semin helps you win this season and then let him chase his riches in the KHL next year.

And at that point, Sasha may be gone, but lord knows we're gonna remember him.

  • Ryan Mavity has been a reporter with the Cape Gazette since February 2007. He covers the city of Rehoboth Beach, Baltimore Ravens football and Delaware State University football. He lives in Georgetown with his wife, Rachel and their son, Alex.

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