Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mid-Week Hockey Musings Including "In Defense of Alexander Semin"....

Wow - well hope and good thoughts continue to emanate from Verizon Center and KCI after a 3-0 shutout of Southeast Division leading Carolina last night and that's a good thing in my Capitals Fan Centric world or maybe more properly in my world which this time of year is usually Capitals Fan Centric. My musings today on hockey are realism and fact versus perception though so I must remember that the Capitals still need to basically play 0.600 hockey the rest of the way this season to be reasonably sure they make the playoffs come April 27th and even with this second in a row regulation win over a Division leading team they are still 5-5-0 (0.500) in their last 10 games. That of course means tonight's game in Philadelphia against our traditional rival Flyers is as important as ever and could be looked back on come April 28th as a turning point one way or another either way.

I try not to be overly dramatic on these things, I'm just a simple hockey fan, blogging my own personal thoughts and opinions here after all. I'm a middle aged guy who loves his regular day job and has other avocations and interests in addition to following the Capitals, NHL and pro sports in general. I don't want to grow up to be a journalist or statistician or anything like that but I do really, really enjoy seeing the best in the world perform and compete against each other game in game out; I've blogged before about this and the reason I'm so passionate about following the NHL is from what I can tell pro hockey players are the athletes who keep it most real, and are most approachable and the nicest of them all. In addition to playing a sport that for me is absolutely the most fun to watch either in HD on TV or in person. Why this attestation you ask? Well because of the stuff I'm going to write about that will follow today. Approachability, etc. aside though, I firmly believe that professional athletes at the highest levels are special talents and not like most of us. They can't be and achieve the level of capability in their games without a higher compete level, etc. than we generally approach, anything we do in life, regardless of their physical gifts or talent levels. Both of which also have to be there in that top 1/10th of 1% level to eve make it as "a grinder" etc. To me the prior statement isn't opinion, it's fact. One only has to look at a guy who "almost made it" and see his or her talent levels, etc. and compare them to we typical beer leaguers, etc. Do we know a lot about a particular sport, etc. compared to someone who hasn't or didn't play "the game" sure, probably. Do we know and understand "the game" to the level it takes someone to inherently understand and live the game eve to make it in the AHL - I don't think so. And what's that mean to make it in the NHL - well it simply means you have to have all that and more and to do that it means whether you're a fourth line grinder or a first line talent you are special - talent and physical ability level; work ethic level; and knowledge and understanding "vision, etc." - really in every way. Put it simply there are over 7,000,000,000 (billion) people on this planet today; ~1,500 own NHL contracts and roster spots today - that's 0.00002%. No matter how you look at that - that's special. It's also something I think we fans overlook and forget when we hear comments by them about their peers. They aren't talking about whether or not compared with mere mortals or even top tier players in the lesser leagues such as the AHL, KHL, etc. are like this or that. They are talking about their perceptions, etc. of a peer who is playing and being paid to compete against them at the top 0.00002% level of a sport is like. My point is that in the past I've commented that one of the things I don't like about Sidney Crosby is how plain vanilla and non-controversial 99.9999% of what comes out of his mouth is - after this past week's furor over Troy Brouwer's comments about Alexander Semin and all the reaction to it - I will probably never feel or think such thoughts again - even about Sidney Crosby.

Before I go on let me say this - Troy Brouwer and every other current NHL player, former teammate or otherwise is truly entitled to and likely has an opinion about the other 1499 players around with NHL contracts. No argument there. Also I love that Brouwer is having a great season and playing well - I want him to continue to do so and I think he will do so. As you will see from the notes that follow, I am and always have been a fan of Alexander Semin and I will continue to be so. I also think it was time for him to move on for both himself and the Capitals last summer. I think his play, etc. this season will prove that I am right and he'll do better than ever in Carolina. As a Caps fan, I wish he'd do that on a team outside the SE Division but hey, the Caps could have had him if we wanted him and this (letting him go) was probably the right move.

All that said when twitter and other media blew up last week after Brouwer's comments once again, IMO, we saw emotions run high ad statements based on emotion and perception vice fact, statistics and data running amok, in my opinion. So here goes - here's my factual statements and data "in defense of Alexander Semin" as opposed or in some case, in direct response to many of the most common thoughts tweeted that I think are just not based in reality and let me say this, if you doubt whether perception is or can become reality when it's all said and done  - ask yourself how Zach Parise exited this summer with a long term $12M/year deal while Semin who has better numbers - all around - is playing on a one year $7M/deal (again) this season? I'm not saying that Parise isn't worth his $12M - you know how I know he is? Because that's what he's getting paid - that's a fact - and it' simple, someone whose job is to decide whether or not Zach Parise is worth $12M decided he was and is writing those checks today. In the world we live in something is worth what someone will actually pay for it - not what the current owner might think its worth before he/she tries to "sell it" etc. That's how our world works, so in answer to the question that many Caps fans last week made comments on - Alexander Semin is for sure worth $7M/season. The factual data proves he is - for the last three seasons he's been making that and he's been doing so on one year deals; so at any point in time if he wasn't worth $7M, he wouldn't have been paid it the following season. Now let's look at the market comparables and Semin's numbers to understand why and how Semin has been able to command $7M/season "on the open market" each of the last three seasons.

In Defense of Alexander Semin:

Here's the data I collected that I thought was/is interesting looking at a pretty broad array of top NHL forward contracts as comparables to Alexander Semin.

Semin (L/RW)     $7M     G         A                        G/G     P/G

2011-12                           21         33        54             0.273   0.701
2010-11                           28         26        54             0.431   0.831
2009-10                           40         44        84             0.548   1.151
2008-09                           34         45        79             0.548   1.274
2007-08                           24         16        42             0.413   0.667
2006-07                          38         35        73              0.494   0.948
2003-04                          10           12        22            0.192   0.423
Career              486GP                                             0.414   0.868

 Other Top NHL Forwards Making Similar Salaries (career numbers/game) to Semin:

  1) S. Crosby (C)            $7.5M            453GP          0.512   1.406
  2) E. Malkin (C)            $9M               445GP          0.476   1.231
  3) A. Ovechkin (L/RW) $9M               570GP           0.609   1.216
  4) J. Thorton (C)            $7.0M          1092GP           0.300   1.001
  5) I. Kovalchuk (R/LW)$11M             798GP           0.518   1.005
  6) S. Stamkos (C/W)      $8.0M            343GP          0.560   1.044
  7) Z. Parise (LW)           $12M             519GP           0.387   0.813
  8) E. Staal (C/LW)         $8.4M**        659GP           0.393   0.900
  9) V. Lecavalier (C)       $10M            1016GP          0.373   0.845
10) M. Richards (C)         $8.4M             543GP          0.285   0.744
11) R. Nash (R/LW)         $7.6M             688GP           0.424   0.813
12) M. Gaborik (L/RW)   $7.5M             739GP          0.448   0.890
13) M. Cammallieri (W/C) $7.0M          576GP          0.351   0.759
14) J. Spezza (C)              $8.0M             611GP           0.373   1.016
15) J. Iginla (RW)            $7.0M**       1205GP           0.431   0.901
16) T. Vanak (L/RW)      $6.4M            566GP            0.428   0.837
17) M. StLouis (R/LW)   $5.5M**         950GP            0.344   0.922
18) M. Hossa (RW)         $7.9M             997GP           0.427   0.923
19) P. Kane (RW/C)        $6.0M             418GP           0.325   0.615
20) H. Zetterberg (C/LW)$7.75M**     687GP            0.376   0.945

 Additional Semin statistics: 0.959 PIM/Game; Career +/- = +74 (+0.154/game)

 And just for grins (again Career Numbers and current salaries):
T. Brouwer (RW)                    $2.35M        337GP    0.223   0.439 (-14) Also:  (0.724PIM/Game)
M. Bradley (RW)                    UFA            675GP     0.087   0.221
D. Steckel (C)                         $1.10M        394GP     0.081   0.183.

 Additional information about the data: Source - TSN.COM and All numbers except career +/- is limited to NHL regular season data on TSN.COM through 2/26/2013.  In order to look at the whole what about "Semin is a washout/no show in the playoffs" assertion I did also look at EVERY one of Semin and the 20 comparables above and compare their G/G and Pts/Gm in playoffs games versus their reular season career numbers.  That data shows two things 1) the playoffs are indeed different and lower scoring/tighter played and 2) only four players on the list have significantly better numbers in either G/G or Pts/Gm in their career in the playoffs vs. regular season numbers.  The four "big game/playoff" guys are highlighted by a double asterik ** next to their annual salary numbers:  Eric Staal; Jerome Iginla; Marty StLouis; and Henrik Zetterberg.  Everyone else is closeto but slightly under their career norms for their playoff appearances but some like Rick Nash clearly do not have a stastically significant data set to mke any sort of judgemetn on and that's the biggest reason I didn't include it in the numbers for comparable comparisons.

So where should we begin looking at the data/statistics and numbers – which is what agents and GM’s do when they negotiate and make the decisions of what to pay for a player to decide “Is Alexander Semin worth $7M?”. Sure, intangible stuff like the perception material is used I’m sure to try and bolster a case one way or another and for sure we know from Jim Rutherford’s comments about the deal he negotiated that brought Semin to Raleigh it had something to do with why Semin is currently on a one year deal in Carolina vice a 3 year or so deal he was apparently seeking from teams.  Further I’ve kept this mainly to the basic data and numbers since in order to better understand so called “fancy statistics” you really have to look very closely at them and explore them and I think this defense is getting long winded enough as it is.  That said in pure pay for performance terms looking at the pay for productivity information of Semin vs. 20 other elite forwards in the NHL – and to get more than $5M/season you need to be “elite” Semin seems to be on par with his statistical peers.  Certainly his salary is not outside the statistical norms when looking at $/ goals or points per game. For a wing to be looked at as a goal scorer and a reliable offensive producer that justifies $5+M/season I believe this data points to two things/thresholds that need to be met or exceeded – a likelihood of achieving or exceeding 0.400 goals/game and/or a likelihood of achieving or exceeding 0.750 points per game.  Semin easily meets both of those thresholds.  Now why $7M instead of a number closer to $5M?  Well that’s where two things I think come into and came into play – 1) Semin’s preference for a shorter deal vice a lower salary and longer term – he’s consistently shown a willingness to trade term for money now.  (Perhaps that’s the hockey playing son reflecting something he learned growing up the son of a successful CFO (e.g time/value of money and that at the end of a day, especially when as a professional athlete the length of time you can achieve maximum earnings can be fleeting – “a bird in the hand is probably worth two in the bush+…2)  The second factor is Semin’s career numbers show when looking at his best season: 2008-09 and 2009-2010, he can significantly outperform his statistical means in both G/G and Pts/G and when he does he begins to approach numbers that are indeed league leading.  It’s simply the price a team has to pay for the difference of having someone who can reliably score 30G and 60Pts in a season and one who in addition to that productivity has the upside of and clear potential of scoring 40G and 80 points.  It’s really no different than the premium the Rangers had to pay to sign either Gaborik or Nash or the Blackhawks pay Hossa.   Now about “intangibles” and such things where fact needs to be separated from fiction, there’s really only one negative frequently mentioned when talking about Semin that the data/statistics bear out and that’s the number of minor penalties he takes vs. the ones he draws.   As an elite, scoring player Semin’s 0.959 Minor Penalty Minutes/Game is significantly higher than many of the other players on this list and because f that no matter how many penalties he draws the delta will pale in comparison to pretty much every other  players on this list.  Now what about the impression he gets lazy or is a little soft relative to playing through injuries in the middle of the season – well the average number of games played and appeared in per season just doesn’t bear that assertion out.

 Why this defense of Alexander Semin?  Well I continually defend against any of this “enigma stuff” when it’s hurled at European and especially Russian players.  I do so because I simply think about what it must be like to be a 20 something person living and working in a foreign land under a microscope.  Further, Russians like Americans and Canadians grow up in a land where they can literally drive for hours and even days and not have to speak a foreign tongue.  Coming to the US or Canada to live and work is very intimidating and has to wreak havoc on these young men emotionally, especially while they are trying to break into and maintain careers as professional athletes.  I think the whole “enigma” hullabaloo is exactly that and it’s exacerbated by the fans and media to have something to write about.  No more – no less.  Further, in most cases the data bears things out.  Forget Semin, the fact that from time to time the press says similar types of things about Malkin – a two time Hart Trophy winner with all universe statistics is probably a better thing to point to about the horse hockey aspects of it.  I started this by saying that I agree that peers like Brouwer, Bradley, and Steckel are all clearly entitled to their opinions and to voice them if they so desire re: Semin as a teammate.  That said when Brouwer arrived, the Capitals were in transition and his time as a teammate of Semin was brief – 22 games vs the 18 games Semin’s current Carolina teammates have with him.  Here’s what two of Semin’s current teammates are saying about the intangibles per a recent article in the less than Semin loving Washington Times:

“Behind the back, through the legs,” Corvo said. “That’s why he makes the big bucks. He makes the plays that other guys just don’t think of.”

Semin’s ability to make difficult plays look easy has never been questioned. But even the elements of Semin’s game that have come under fire aren’t ones the Hurricanes are concerned about. “I think he’s competed hard every practice and every game for us. He continues to prove people wrong,” Eric Staal said. “I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him.”

I don’t know why some of his former teammates feel the need to comment on Semin, I’ll conjecture they believe if they had his talent they’d make more of it, because they clearly seem to have said, they think they have a better work ethic, and they didn't appreiate the inconsistant work ethic they felt Semin approached the game with while they were teammates. My reaction is it’s life not grade school and frankly it’s professional sports – the whole “work ethic” thing and make sure you show up every night and are accountable thing is, in my view overhyped, overblown and misunderstood by we fans and lay people. I’m not saying it’s not important – it is. I AM saying there is NO WAY, no matter how talented you are that you get to and stay in the top 0.00002% of your profession without doing that exact thing – working hard and holding yourself accountable – pretty much every minute of the season How any individual player does that is going to be very personal and clearly different for someone from a different cultural background. So it’s really a comparison that one member of the top 0.00002% is making to another member of the top 0.00002%. I think if you/we are not part of that club, you'll (we’ll) probably misunderstand the context, motive and even the meaning of the statement. For that reason, I’m now admitting I understand why Sidney Crosby is probably smart to say nothing controversial in pretty much every interview he ever does. It doesn't make for interesting articles or stories but it's probably the smartest thing one player can do when especially when they are one of the leagues clear top ten and asked about another player. If for some reason Troy Brouwer, David Steckel or Matt Bradley ever asked me my advice on the topic, I’d suggest they just politely respond with non-controversial statements like I wish him well but when we play his team I’m certainly hoping we match up well against him and continue to keep him off the scoreboard. I mean if John Carlson can get the quote right, I’m sure everyone else on the team can as well.

I think I’ve rambled on enough on this topic and I doubt I’ll ever write another word on it unless somehow Carolina wins the Stanley Cup this year and Alexander Semin is a big reason they do so. I mean at that point it’ll be worth talking about what a great thing the move was for both Semin and the Hurricanes, until then Semin is really “just” another top NHL forward that plays against the Washington Capitals and whose style of play and talent level I respect and enjoy watching.

The one other reason I wrote this defense is that I truly don’t get why fans at Verizon Center would boo him. He’s said nothing negative about his time here and he clearly, from the data and statistics perspective earned the money he was paid while playing here. I mean it’s not like he’s Jagr who the Caps paid for multiple years to play for the New York Rangers for crying out loud. So for that reason I just think boo'ing Semin and reviling him in any way is silly.

Now about tonight’s game: I’m with Peerless – tight game; Caps Win 3-2…

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