July 09 2012 06:03AM
One of our NHL Numbers writers, Rob Pettapiece, made an excellent point last week. In the early days of baseball, before player production was boiled down to digestible statistics, it wasn't like managers were overlooking basic attributes a successful player has. The ability to get on base and to hit for power had always been sought after in baseball, even before Bill James. It was only after the release of Moneyball that fans started to see how wrong some teams were doing it.
It's the same thing in hockey. If you ask the average hockey fan or executive, they'll tell you (if they're giving you a straight answer) that the most important trait in a player is his ability to gain the zone and to create scoring chances. Perhaps they wouldn't phrase it in that way, but that is unequivocally the most important thing teams look for in their most important players. A lot of that is clouded. Some teams overvalue certain roles and, unfortunately, some players' ability to do simple things like gain the zone and create scoring chances.
The numbers - the "advanced" numbers we used - are just another way of expressing observation. In a way, it's proving something we already know.
Why this is relevant is that it's caused a few people to do a small double-take when discussing Alexander Semin. What is Alexander Semin? He is a player who scored 21 goals in a down season who, in the last three years, has scored more goals per game than every player in the NHL save 11. [Hockey Reference]
Even the traditional numbers tell you that Semin is an effective hockey player. So too, do his advanced numbers. When I say that Semin's "Corsi" rating over a full season has never been negative, all this means is that when Alex Semin is on the ice, the puck spends more time in the opponents' end. When Alex Semin skates, the Washington Capitals are effectively earning the bulk of the scoring chances. There's no doubt Semin is heavily involved in these proceedings. [Behind The Net]
The concerns about Semin are familiar. "Soft", "bad teammate", "not a playoff performer" are cliché. With so much objective evidence in sports, critics must turn to intangible evidence to provide a logical reason to why they can't like a player. It's not like this is exclusive to Russians either - Ted Williams was criticized in his lengthy baseball career for never being clutch - but lately a small narrative comes attached to players with Russian backgrounds.
Semin can ignore that, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are probably a good enough fit. The Leafs' problem is that there are far too few difference-makers in the lineup. It just so happens that two of them, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel, left their old teams having to answer the same questions. On the surface, Semin isn't all that much of a different player than Phil Kessel, except where Kessel cost the Leafs a pair of high first round picks, Semin would cost them a few million dollars a year.
As it stands, the team is nowhere near the salary cap, and Semin probably doesn't have the leverage to command the long-term deals that Brian Burke hates.
The best pro-Semin argument was laid out nicely by Steve Burtch over at Pension Plan Puppets. Semin represents the type of player whose contribution is so nicely laid out by stats. Traditional arguments aside about effort or distance from teammates be damned, he made a good hockey team a better hockey team when he was on the ice.
Semin hasn't won a Stanley Cup or said six consecutive words in English since coming over, but none of those problems should concern the Leafs at this point. In three years, the Capitals had the puck with Alexander Ovechkin on the ice 52.1% of the time. With Semin added to Ovechkin, that number was raised up to 55.9%. Don't think that the extra puck-possession hasn't turned into goals as well. With Semin on the ice, Ovechkin is a +23 in 909 minutes, averaging out to about +1.5 over 60 minutes of play. Without Semin on the ice, that number decreases by almost half, to +0.8 per 60 minutes. [Hockey Analysis]
Good teammate, bad teammate, whatever it is, Semin makes the players on the Capitals, generally, better players. He's a skilled player with a wicked shot that would be a boon to any team that had him. He's just a guy. He's just a guy that would make a team a little bit better going forward, just like any guy, one who is available and comes attached with a lot less risk than I think his biggest detractors would care to admit.