So, here’s a memory. It’s November 2009 and the Washington Capitals are in Atlanta.
It’s early but not that early in the season and Alexander Semin is tearing it up. He’s second in the league in goals and top four in points, and head coach Bruce Boudreau has bestowed additional responsibilities on the mercurial Russian forward, using him on the penalty kill and power play, as well as giving him top-six minutes.
Semin, perpetually wary of any interaction with the press in spite of years of service in North America, reluctantly spends some time with me courtesy of Caps PR guru Sergey Kocharov.
He talks about how he’s honored to be given the responsibilities.
Of course, not long after the story runs, Semin’s offense goes south for a time and so too does his commitment to the whole 200 feet of the rink. And so it goes.
The talented forward still finished that season with 40 goals and 84 points in 73 games, which he then followed up with a zero-goal, two-point effort in the first round as Washington blew a 3-1 series lead against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
Sometime after that, I talked with an NHL general manager about Semin and the merits of a long-term contract.
There are none, the GM said.
Anything more than a short-term deal will invite chaos when it comes to the immensely talented but easily distracted Semin.
Which explains in part the short-term deals that marked his career in Washington, the team that drafted him 13th overall in 2002.
All of which makes the buyout of Semin by the Carolina Hurricanes completely unsurprising.
Semin signed a one-year deal worth $7 million in the summer of 2012 to join the Hurricanes. It was a lot of money but in keeping with the Washington model, the term seemed designed to keep Semin interested, and he turned out to be a point-a-game performer playing mostly with captain Eric Staal in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, picking up 44 points in 44 games.
The next fall Staal said that Semin was one of the most, if not the most, talented players he’d ever played with.
OK, so what else would Staal say? Still, it was high praise from one of the league’s most respected players.
But it was during that 2012-13 season that the Canes shocked the hockey world by signing Semin to five-year extension worth $35 million. Perhaps there was concern Semin would bolt in the offseason for the Kontinental Hockey League. Maybe there was pressure from ownership to keep the talented player in the fold.
Still, even if you consider Ilya Bryzgalov's lamentable deal with the Philadelphia Flyers, Rick DiPietro’s mind-boggling contract with the New York Islanders (both players were similarly bought out of their deals) or conjure up any of the forgettable deals in recent years, it’s hard to imagine the Semin signing does not top any of them for misguidedness.
Semin’s point production fell off in 2013-14 (42 points in 65 games), and then last season was a disaster as head coach Bill Peters demanded more and got less from the 31-year-old. Peters banished Semin to the press box as a healthy scratch at various points in the season. Semin refused to talk to the media and ended up with just six goals in 57 games or more than $1 million per goal based on his annual salary.
Tuesday the Hurricanes placed Semin on waivers for the purpose of buying him out of the final three years of his deal, meaning the Canes will be charged $2.33 annually against the salary cap for the next six years. The team is not a cap team so that won’t hurt as much as the actual payout of $14 million over the next six years to ensure Semin will not to play for them.
It is the kind of mistake that haunts a small-market team like Carolina for years.
Now the question is whether another team makes a similar mistake or will the Carolina experience sour the rest of the league on Semin, who remains determined, according to his representatives, to remain in North America?
The history of free agency, especially given this summer’s thin class, suggests someone will take another chance on Semin.
Is there another player who represents the risk/reward conundrum like Semin?
One NHL observer noted that, if you think Semin can score 25 goals for you and your next-best option can score 15, is it worth the cost (let’s say $3 million as a conservative start), potential aggravation and uncertainty over whether he’s going to show up to get those additional 10 goals?
One would think the answer should be an unequivocal no.
If you think he can score 40 goals, though, and you ask yourself if it’s worth it for an additional 25 goals, maybe the answer is different and maybe the result is different too.
And so, if you’re the Arizona Coyotes desperate for scoring, or the Buffalo Sabres with a plethora of talented young centers, or the Montreal Canadiens with a need for more offensive juice or, heck, the Boston Bruins, where just about anything seems to be possible this offseason, maybe you do take a deep breath and say, why not?
Either way this shakes out for Semin, there aren’t many around the hockey world who were surprised to see the Hurricanes swallow hard and try to erase one of the great mistakes of the post-lockout era.