Why Alex Semin is still a free agent—but shouldn't be

Now that Zach Parise is off the market and planning how to spend the next 13 years in Minnesota (there’s a broken mirror joke there somewhere), free agent Alex Semin is probably getting a few more phone calls than he was a week ago.

He’s going to be a second prize to a team that was hoping to land Parise. As far as career stats go, he’s about as close a second prize as they come and some team is going to end up with a guy who is not that far removed from a 40-goal season.

But they’re also going to get a guy less further removed from a 21-goal season with 56 penalty minutes, a four-year low for him.

It’s all about ceilings and floors with Semin—and how often he vacillates between the two.

Semin sat fans on the thinnest line between exciting and terrifying because you never knew what he’d do.

His best is damn close to as good as there is. He’d scream down a wing in D.C., drag a toe and send home a sublime goal. Blink and you missed it. Yes, the whole thing.

Blink again and he could be at his worst: drawing insufferable penalties at the worst possible moments. Hands clasped at heads or raised in disgust mixed with confusion—why?

Too often, the latter wiped out the former in the memory of Capitals fans.

The latter has even come to define Alex Semin.

When a player of his measurable talents suffers lapses like that again and again, playing to his floor more than his ceiling, the only thing to blame are the player’s immeasurable talents, the “intangibles” that has become a grab bag of descriptive phrases like “gets the job done”, “wants it bad” and “has that look in his eye” (which is by miles and miles the most ridiculous thing to mention about a player. Ocular fortitude. Pfffft.) that you just can’t measure with a ruler or a scale or a radar gun.

Those general managers who have been sitting on their hands instead of giving Semin a call are probably worried about those intangibles. They’re worried he takes penalties far too often. They’re also worried that there are times when Semin looks like he can check out.

Somewhere, some scout scribbled: “His shaky ocular fortitude rating here really drags down his overall scouting grade.”

Look: just because they’re intangibles doesn’t mean they’re unchangeables. Who’s to say that the right coach couldn’t get Semin to take less dumb penalties and get more offense out of him than Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter have? Who’s to say that a change of city from D.C. wouldn’t help? Hell, even getting out of the shadow of his more famous, more Russian (only slightly serious about this) teammate Alex Ovechkin might do Semin a world of good.

Regardless of where he goes and what he does, questions about his intangibles will follow. Is he really a superstar or does he lack the “killer instinct” and “will to win” that separates stars from superstars? Can he spend more time up around the ceiling of his game and less on the floor? And, thanks to TSN, is he “the ultimate coach killer”?

(Answer to that last one: no. If you’re going to put a qualifier like “ultimate” next to something as incendiary as coach killer, it has to be the one greatest killer of coaches of all time, which pushes this thing beyond the boundaries of just one sport. That conversation for ultimate coach killer starts and ends with Wilt Chamberlain. He was one of the two best players in the league in his time who was obsessed with not fouling out to the point that he would change his game defensively, winning be damned. He was traded twice in his prime for cents on the dollar. The only other argument that comes close to reason, because it's recent and cost his coach his job at his request, is Dwight Howard. He still has Stan Van Gundy's blood on his hands. Chamberlain has claimed more coaches though. The lesson: words have meaning, some more than others.)

Wherever Semin ends up playing, it figures not to be D.C.

Some team will benefit from Semin leaving the Capitals. Could be the Capitals themselves.

But, without him, it all won’t be nearly as exciting for Caps fans.

Or terrifying.

 

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