enigma [ɪˈnɪgmə]

n. A person, thing, or situation that is mysterious, puzzling, or ambiguous. See: Alexander Semin

Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons wrote a terrific column on Oklahoma City’s enigmatic and polarizing star, Russell Westbrook, back in late June. Westbrook is one of the top talents in the NBA, but he has garnered plenty of criticism for the things he doesn’t do. Westbrook’s aggressive style of play is seen as reckless by his detractors, and they choose to overlook all of his positive attributes (and there are a lot of them). Those who defend Westbrook (including Simmons) accept his faults because he contributes positively in so many ways.

“Westbrook’s defenders accept his faults because they’re a small part of the greater good: He brings so many unique things to the table, fills the stat sheet in so many different ways, competes so freaking hard every game and remains such a good-natured teammate, they’re fine with any collateral damage.”

Alexander Semin is one of the most polarizing players in the NHL. Like Westbrook, he has no shortage of critics, including former coaches, teammates, and members of the media. In the past few playoffs, TSN and CBC in particular have been consistent with their political party-like smear campaigns. People focus on what he takes off of the proverbial table (consistent production, toughness, physical play, and intangibles like grit and heart), all the while ignoring his positives (production at even strength, and a positive impact on linemates, among other things).

There is one big difference between the two players. Westbrook is criticized at times for trying too hard. With Semin, the exact opposite is true.

Why does Semin get criticized for his faults so much more than other NHL players? There are many reasons.

In his column, Simmons also discusses what he calls the “10 Percent Theory.” All great athletes have weaknesses, and even the greatest players are only using about 90 percent of their total potential (not sure how Simmons quantifies this, but in general the theory makes sense). These weaknesses represent the other 10 percent. For some players, these weaknesses are more glaring than others (in Semin’s case, his get dissected on an almost daily basis). With the right coaches, the right fit, and the right playing style, these weaknesses are minimized. Put Semin on a team with a strong leadership group (something Washington probably hasn’t had in recent years, although that is merely speculation without being privy to what goes on in the dressing room), and perhaps the four most recent seasons may have ended differently.

Simmons mentions Steve Francis in his column. Francis very well could be the Semin of the NBA – a mercurial and talented player who was a divisive figure from day one. Francis refused to play for the Vancouver Grizzlies, the team that drafted him, while Semin returned back to Russia after spending 52 games in Washington as a rookie in 2003-04. Simmons discussed Francis with his former coach Jeff Van Gundy. Van Gundy had Francis during his tenure in Houston, and during that time he tried to change the highly skilled and explosive guard into more of a typical pass-first point guard. In the process, he took away Francis’s 90 percent and focused too much attention on his 10 percent.

The same could be said for how Semin (and many of Washington’s other offensive stars) have been treated in recent years. The Capitals were once the class of the NHL offensively, but after a few playoff disappointments (the final straw being the stifling Montreal defense and Jaroslav Halak during 2010), they changed course, opting for more of a gritty, two-way brand of hockey.

Did the move pay off? From 2008 to 2010, the Capitals won an average of 52 games, consecutive Southeast Division titles, a Presidents’ Trophy, and multiple individual awards. They lost once each in the first and second round. From 2010-2012, the Capitals won an average of 45 games, one Southeast Division title, and zero individual awards. Mike Green went from being the next Paul Coffey to an afterthought. Alex Ovechkin played like a shadow of his former Mark Messier/Pavel Bure hybrid self. And Semin’s role decreased with each passing season.

Like Van Gundy in Houston, Washington’s coaches (starting with Bruce Boudreau and ending with Dale Hunter) tried to change Semin. They focused on what he wasn’t doing (blocking shots, appearing to compete hard), instead of what he was (producing at an elite level, elevating the play of those around him, even as his quality of linemates decreased).

In 2009-10, he spent over 20 percent of his time on the ice with Backstrom and Ovechkin.

Frequency Strength 2009-10 Line Combination

The next season, that number dropped to 16 percent.

Frequency Strength 2010-11 Line Combination

And this past season it dropped even further, to 9.8 percent.

Frequency Strength 2011-12 Line Combination

Semin’s critics haven’t been entirely off the mark, though. Former teammates Matt Bradley and David Steckel spoke negatively of him in public – almost unheard of in hockey. This only confirmed what many people had assumed already – Semin was a bad teammate, and someone who cared more about his own stats than the greater good of winning games.

Comparisons could be made between the run-and-gun Capitals and the run-and-gun Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have done a good job in recent years of shoring up their 10 percent  (size, toughness, defense) without taking away from the other 90. The Capitals have been unsuccessful in this venture, and with the hiring of Adam Oates, a return to maximizing their 90 percent may be in order. Van Gundy told Simmons that the Thunder “needed to win or lose… on their own terms, not some idealistic, media-driven belief about how they SHOULD be playing.” That sentence sounds eerily familiar to Capitals fans, I’m sure.

In his blog for Sports Illustrated, Stu Hackel had the following to say about Semin:

“Semin’s offensive inconsistency reminds me of Alex Kovalev, who was one of the most gifted NHLers ever. He’d amaze teammates in practice, but was maddeningly inconsistent during games. He could have been one of the greatest ever, but he didn’t deliver on his potential enough.”

Like Semin, Kovalev’s detractors focused on his weaknesses while overlooking his positive contributions. Kovalev wasn’t one of the greatest ever, but he was a very good player for a long time. Semin has a better shot and quicker hands than 95 percent of the hockey playing population, but perhaps his ultimate “potential” isn’t unrealized. Maybe he isn’t supposed to be a consistent two-way force that can also score 50 goals. Maybe his upside has been realized – a supremely talented offensive force that disappears for stretches and keeps hockey journalists busy.

Even Semin’s detractors can’t argue with the fact that Washington has never paired him with a suitable center on the second line. From over-the-hill veterans like Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Morrison, and Jason Arnott, to borderline top six forwards like Mathieu Perreault and Eric Belanger, Semin was never given a center to flourish alongside. Ironically enough, the Capitals went out and acquired a legitimate number two center this summer in Mike Ribeiro, but Semin won’t be there to play with him.

After scoring 40 goals in 2009-10, Semin was left off of the NHL All-Star Ballot the very next season. His poor playoff performance in 2010 (zero goals and two assists in seven games) overshadowed what was a spectacular regular season. Whoever was in charge of putting the ballot together obviously was listening to Semin’s critics, a group that seemed to be growing with each passing day. Dave Lozo, an NHL.com writer, put it best.

“Alex Semin is the only guy who can score on national TV and people spend the next five minutes questioning why he doesn’t try.”

Before the 2011-12 season, the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg did his best to debunk some of the perceptions that the hockey world had created about Semin. Some of Greenberg’s work flies in the face of those who consider Semin to be a one-dimensional team cancer (this includes Marc Crawford, the former TSN panelist and Cup winning NHL coach who referred to Semin as a “complete loser” with “no character”  on national television).

“In 2009-10, his Corsi percentage was .541, 17th best in the NHL among forwards, ahead of noted “puck-possession machines” Zach Parise, Marcel Goc and Ryan Clowe. Semin was also 12th in goals scored with 40, 20th in points with 84 and seventh in plus/minus with a plus-36. He did this despite playing the second-toughest opponents among Washington forwards in terms of Corsi relative to the competition.”

Over the last four years, Semin has also proven himself to be an excellent penalty killer. His 4.2 goals against per 60 minutes is in the top 10 lowest among forwards during that period, and he has kept opponents to 44 shots against per 60 when he has been on the ice, 26th best.”

A Corsi percentage of .541 means that of all shots directed on goal, 54.1 percent of them came from Washington players on the opposition’s goalie while Semin was on the ice (a very good number). Semin drove possession in a positive manner for his team while on the ice.

Washington GM George McPhee echoed many of the same sentiments (yet still chose to not re-sign the skilled winger this summer).

“With respect to his play, he’s a productive playoff player. His point-per-game average is way up there in the league. He’s played in 37 playoff games and got 30 points. I mean, Pavel Datsyuk is a terrific playoff player and in his first 37 playoff games he had 12 points. Semin had 30. Semin’s got a better point-per-game average than Corey Perry, who won the MVP, or the Sedin twins, who are great players, or a guy like [Boston’s Patrice] Bergeron, who won the Cup last year. It’s easy to point fingers but you’ve got to get the facts right, and this kid’s been productive.”

Matt Bradley, a teammate of Semin’s for a few seasons, had the following to say about the mercurial winger during an interview a few years ago.

“He could easily be the best player in the league. For whatever reason, just doesn’t care. You need him to be your best player, or one of your best players, and when he doesn’t show up, you almost get the sense that he wants to be back in Russia. That’s tough to win when you’ve got a guy like that.”

Of course Bradley knows more about Semin as a teammate than we ever could. Semin may steal shampoo in the showers, he may cut laces in the dressing room, and he could snore really, really loudly. However, during 2005-2011 (when both Bradley and Semin were teammates), Semin was one of Washington’s most effective and productive forwards – at both ends of the ice.

The above chart, courtesy of David Johnson from Hockey Analysis, shows the GF20 numbers for Semin’s teammates over the most recent three seasons. GF20 stands for team goals for per 20 minutes of ice time. Each Washington forward is plotted on the chart. The horizontal axis shows their GF20 number without Semin on the ice, and the vertical axis shows their number with Semin on the ice.

First off, it is easy to see how Semin’s linemate quality has downgraded. Three years ago, he spent a lot of time with Ovechkin and Backstrom. This past year, his most frequent linemates were Perreault and Jason Chimera.  The larger the circle, the more frequently a player skated on a line with Semin.

It is quite clear that Semin had a positive impact on the offensive production of a wide variety of linemates (and Chimera in particular). In fact, only Ovechkin (2011-12), Johansson (2011-12), and Morrison (2009-10) were better off without Semin. So in three years, only three of 14 linemates fared better offensively without Semin. Not a huge surprise though, as Semin is supposed to be an offensive star.

This next chart is almost identical, except that it measures GA20 (if you guessed team goals against per 20 minutes, you would be correct). Semin, thought of as a one-way offensive talent, would surely drag down the defensive play of his linemates, no?

Quite the opposite, in fact. Almost all of his linemates have had better goals-against ratios while playing with him compared to playing without him (excluding Ovechkin in 2010-11). Only one of 14 linemates from the past three seasons performed significantly better defensively without Semin than with him. Some saw almost no difference with and without Semin on the wing, while others saw a significant improvement in their defensive play. He may lack grit, heart, intensity, and a “motor that doesn’t quit,” but Semin has been a very strong defensive forward in recent years. Read that out loud a few times, now.

And from the same column:

“Of 125 NHL players with 2500 even strength minutes over the past three seasons, Semin ranks fifth in GF20, behind the Sedin twins, Jonathan Toews, and Steven Stamkos). Even more impressive – he ranks 13th in GA20. Daniel and Henrik ranked 28th and 38th in GA20 over that same time, while Toews and Stamkos were way back at 60th and 105th, respectively.”

Fear the Fin conducted a very thorough analysis of Semin before free agency opened this year. Semin’s offensive production (the 90 percent) has been declining over the last four years. His even strength shot rate, goal and point output, and total shots on goal have steadily dropped since 2008 .

Season DZone% Corsi Rel QoC Corsi Rel On-Ice Sh% 5v5 G/60
2008-09 40.40% 0.05 7 10.90% 1.76
2009-10 46.00% 0.46 4.9 12.10% 1.74
2010-11 45.00% 0.79 11.4 10.70% 1.38
2011-12 48.90% -0.34 11 9.30% 0.9


  • DZone% – percent of shifts starting in the defensive zone. Semin’s defensive responsibilities have increased in the last four years.
  • Corsi Rel QoC – the relative Corsi numbers of opponents on the ice. Semin saw his easiest minutes this past season, which is indicative of his declining role.
  • 5v5 S/60 – even strength shots on goal per 60 minutes. Less shots equals less goals, all things being equal.
  • 5v5 G/60 – even strength goals per 60 minutes. Declining each season.
  • 5v5 P/60 – even strength points per 60 minutes. Declining each season.

Semin’s linemate quality has decreased. As have his offensive opportunities. And Washington’s radical shift in playing style and organizational philosophy have all factored in. Even with an even-strength point production ratio of 2.3 per 60 minutes, his lowest in four seasons, Semin still ranks in the top 50 of all NHL forwards (and the top 15 of all NHL left wingers).

Pierre McGuire is obviously plugged in to the hockey world. For all of his faults, he is a passionate color commentator with a coaching background and enough credibility to earn multiple interviews for GM vacancies. Calling Semin “the ultimate coach killer” likely comes from knowledge closer to the situation than most.

Bruce Boudreau, Semin’s coach for a few years in Washington, had the following to say back in 2009.

“Who knows what [Alex] is thinking. The minute I learn to read him, he throws me a curve ball. One day he looks like the greatest star on Earth and the next day you want to use a stick and beat him over the head with it. E’s the enigma of enigmas.”

Boudreau quickly followed that up with slight praise.

“In the NHL you can’t find this type of talent everywhere.”

The perception of Semin as an enigma, a player no heart (or one with a heart back in Russia), and a talented player performing well below the level he should be at was almost universally accepted in hockey.

Consistency is a skill that is underrated in all facets of daily life, and professional sports are no different. Wayne Gretzky was arguably the greatest player of all-time. A large part of what made him so good was the fact that he performed at such a high level for an extended period of time. Sometimes consistency can be learned (Vincent Lecavalier is a great example of this), and sometimes it can’t. Some players (Kovalev and Semin) are simply unable to use their 90 percent 100 percent of the time. You may get a player who plays with the same effort and same level of physicality each and every night (Ryan Callahan, for example), and that makes up a large part of his 90 percent. However, Callahan could only dream of doing many of the things Semin can do with the puck on his stick.

Another part of Semin’s game that has provided ammunition for his detractors – his penchant for lazy penalties in the offensive zone. Looking at the numbers, it is hard to refute this claim. Semin takes a lot of minor penalties relative to his teammates as well as the rest of the league.

Minor Penalties Team Rank League Rank
2011-2012 Season 28 1 34
2010-2011 Season 27 T-1 47
2009-2010 Season 33 1 20

All that being said, Semin has the 11th highest goals-per-game average since the lockout. He has had a positive impact (on the ice, at least) on his teammates.

Even during 2011-12, a season in which Semin saw his ice time cut to 16:47 per game, and was playing with checkers instead of Washington’s top talent; he was able to generate scoring chances at a significantly greater rate than any other Capital.

“A scoring chance is defined as a clear play directed toward the opposing net from a dangerous scoring area, loosely defined as the top of the circle in and inside the faceoff dot. Blocked shots are generally not included, but missed shots are. A player is awarded a “chance for” (SCF) if someone on his team has a chance to score and a “chance against” (SCA) if the opposing team has a chance to score.”

Semin’s scoring chance differential of plus-52 was more than double any other Capital player (Perreault was second at plus-24). With Semin on the ice, the Capitals generated 52 more scoring chances on net than their opposition did.

Jim Rutherford, Carolina’s GM, spoke of his tempered interest in Semin.

“We would look at Semin on a short-term basis. We wouldn’t want to get locked in to anything, because we’ve all heard the stories.”

Some of the stories are true. Semin takes bad penalties. He isn’t the best teammate. However, calling him one-dimensional is simply wrong. Saying he doesn’t care? He would have been back in Russia long ago if that were true.

Instead of trying to figure out what makes him tick, why he doesn’t speak English more often, why he isn’t revered by his teammates, NHL GMs should be figuring out why they are busy overpaying for average talent while one of the best possession players in the entire league continues to toil away on the open market.

Back to the Simmons column on Westbrook. He compared Westbrook’s “compete level” to that of Michael Jordan. Semin will never be lauded for his “compete level,” which makes up a part of his 10 percent. However, teams need to stop overlooking the other 90. If it was all about the money, Semin would be starring in Russia alongside Alex Radulov right now.

Take the final paragraph from Simmons’ column and replace Westbrook’s name with Semin’s.

“As for Semin, he’s never shedding that 10 percent. We’re always going to notice it. That is what makes him Alex Semin. You are who you are.”