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Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Alexander Semin Needs a Center

Alexander Semin (Александр Валерьевич Сёмин, Pronounced "Syomin") is a remarkably talented hockey player.  He has a skill set to rival anyone's in hockey right now.  He has amazing puck control, slick passing ability, and a shot that most goalies don't see until it's too late.  Some people may question his desire and discipline, but that does not change his impact on hockey games:  he can blow a game open at any moment.  This forces opposing coaches to pay attention to him and draw some of the defensive pressure away from top-line winger Alex Ovechkin.

#28 Alexander Semin

Semin's greatest asset is his ability to create goals without a nice set-up pass.  He scores a large number of his goals this way, much the way Ovechkin did his first couple years in the league.

Semin Hat Trick

This begs the question:  if Semin is so good, why couldn't he score in the playoffs?  While Semin definitely had a few chances he should have buried among his first-round leading 44 shots, I would argue Semin did not have a playmaking center who could get him the puck in space to make a play.  My argument is if Semin had a regular center capable of producing at least 20 goals and 40 assists per year, Semin would be a 50 goal and 100 point per season player.  To make this argument, I examine Semin against his teammates and against a relevant example in the NHL.

Alex Semin Highlights

Semin finished 7th in the NHL in goal scoring this season with 40 goals while missing 9 games.  Prorating his average per-game production of 0.547 goals per game this season, he could have scored 45 goals this season if he had not missed a game.  He also finished 13th in points with 84, and with his 1.15 points per game he would have finished with 94 points in 82 games.  The next closest forward on the NHL scoring list who is primarily a second-line winger is Vancouver's Alexandre Burrows, who finished with 35 goals and 67 points in 82 games, helping the Canucks finish #2 in the NHL in goal scoring.

 Burrows and his nemesis:  referee Stephane Auger

The Capitals have a unique player in the league, a winger who produces like an elite first-liner while primarily playing on the second line.  The only other player in the league who is truly similar to Semin is left-winger Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks.  This is not a perfect comparison, as Marleau played primarily on the top line with Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton, but he also spent significant time with #2 center Joe Pavelski to give the Sharks two scary scoring lines.  Marleau was also drafted as a center and won 51% of his 615 faceoffs (5th most on the Sharks), meaning he played some center during the season. 

Patrick Marleau           Joe Thornton           Dany Heatley   

To get an idea of how line chemistry can work on a top-notch hockey line, I took a look at our friends out West.  Marleau was the top-scoring winger for the Sharks, finishing the season with 44 goals and 83 points in 82 games and was a major reason the Sharks were #4 in offense.  His center, Thornton, scored 20 goals and 89 points while Heatley provided 39 goals and 82 points.  Marleau's second option at center, Pavelski,  finished the season with 25 goals and 51 points in 67 games and his other winger, Clowe, provided 19 goals and 57 points.

Assists on 2009-10 Goals by Patrick Marleau

Assists on 2009-10 Goals by Dany Heatley

Assists on 2009-10 Goals by Joe Thornton

Dany Heatley stands out here, as Joe Thornton set up a whopping 62% of his goals on the season.  Marleau set up 28% of Heatley's goals from the left wing.  Heater also set up 40% of Jumbo Joe's goals.  

Marleau's set-up men were a little spread out because he often dropped a line, but 48% of his goals were assisted by his regular center and 34% by his regular winger.  Marleau also set up 20% of Thornton's goals.

San Jose also featured a top notch offensive defenseman, Dan Boyle, who finished the season with 15 goals and 58 points.  He assisted on 38% of Heatley's goals and 25% of Marleau's and Thornton's.   

Marleau's time with another center was not wasted, as Pavelski set him up 7 times (all primary assists) when Marleau either moved down a line or Pavelski moved up.  Marleau also set up Pavelski 6 times (5 primary assists, 5 even strength assists).   Marleau also had some decent chemistry with winger Ryane Clowe, who occasionally moved up a line.  Clowe set him up for 7 goals; Marleau returned the favor 4 times. 

Joe Pavelski             Ryane Clowe

After getting a baseline, I took an in-depth look at who was assisting on whose goals on the Washington Capitals to get an idea of how hockey line chemistry works in D.C.  It's no secret Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom play well together on the top line.  They played together most of the season and the numbers bear out their chemistry.  Ovechkin scored 50 goals on the season and Nicklas Backstrom assisted on 24 of them, or 48%.  Backstrom scored 33 goals and Ovechkin assisted on 16 of them, or 48%.  There were 16 more goals last season that Backstrom and Ovechkin both assisted on.  That's 56 total goals they both were a part of.


Below are tables that list the top 4 players assisting on Ovechkin's and Backstrom's goals in 2009-10.  Semin shows up on both tables by virtue of being a part-time first liner. 

Assists on Alex Ovechkin's 2009-10 Goals

Assists on Nicklas Backstrom's 2009-10 Goals

While they played very well together on the powerplay, Ovie and Backis were especially good together at even strength.  Backstrom assisted on 19 of Ovie's 37 even strength goals, and 14 of those were primary assists, meaning he was the last Capital to touch the puck before Ovie scored.  Likewise, Ovechkin assisted on 59% of Backstrom's even-strength goals and was the last man to touch the puck on 9 of 22.  This is not unusual for them, though.  In 2008-09, Backstrom assisted on 22 of Ovechkin's 56 goals (39%) and Ovechkin assisted on 12 of Backstrom's 22 (55%), plus they combined to assist on 11 more for 45 total.  In 2007-08, Backstrom assisted on 22 of Ovie's 65 goals (34%), Ovie assisted on 6 of Backstrom's 14 (43%), and they combined to assist on 9 more for 37 total. 

Consider the line chemistry both of them had with their regular right winger, Mike Knuble, in 2009-10.

Assists on Mike Knuble's 2009-10 Goals

Ovechkin was the #1 passer to Knuble this season and his 15 assists on Knuble goals was major reason his assists per game went through the roof.  The #1 right winger on the Caps last season, Viktor Kozlov, only scored 13 goals, and only two of those were assisted by Ovie.  Ovechkin and Backstrom both assisted on about 50% of Knuble's goals, and there is a significant drop-off after those two. It is also interesting to note that Shaone Morrisonn assisted on more Knuble goals (3) than did Brendan Morrison (2).  In the previous tables, you can also see that Knuble assisted on 8 Ovechkin goals and 5 Backstrom goals.  This is in contrast to Kozlov last year, who only assisted on 4 goals each for Ovechkin and Backstrom. 

Mike Knuble                                             Viktor Kozlov 

Imagine if Ovechkin, Knuble, and Backstrom had played more of last season together and there weren't any pesky injuries or suspensions to deal with. 

Now contrast this to who was assisting on Alexander Semin's goals: 

Assists on Alexander Semin's 2009-10 Goals

His regular left-winger, Brooks Laich, had a pretty decent assist rate of 33% for him, but no center could account for more than 6 even-strength assists.  The only center Semin had real chemistry with was Nicklas Backstrom.  Backis set up Sasha for 8 goals, the most by any center, Sahsa set up Backis for 9 goals, and they combined to assist on 10 more.  In fact, Sasha was the #2 set-up man for both Backis and Ovie last year.  It would appear Knuble and Semin each bring their own particular skill set to the top line with Backstrom and Ovechkin.

 #21 Brooks Laich

Brendan Morrison and Tomas Fleischmann were Semin's two other regular centers, and they performed reasonably well, each setting up Semin 5 times at even strength while playing his pivot.  (Fleischmann and Morrison combined to assist on a Semin goal on March 25, the last assist of the regular season for both players, and Morrison's last point as a Capital). 

      Brendan Morrison       Tomas Flesichmann    

To show just how little line stability Semin had, I took a look at the distribution of players setting him up.  Assists on Semin's goals are not grouped together like they are for the other top scoring forwards.  It is interesting to note the centers, Backstrom and Thornton, had a lower percentage than the wingers. 

To quantify a comparison of this, I added up the number of even-strength assists for Capitals top goal-scoring forwards Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Knuble, Laich, Fleischmann, and Eric Fehr, plus the San Jose trio of Thornton, Heatley, and Marleau, plus Pavelski.  I took the ratio of the total number of possible assists the top two forwards had on their goals divided by the total number of assists.  In the case of Dany Heatley, Heater scored 20 even strength goals and there were 40 possible assists on those goals, though there were actually 33 assists, as some were unassisted or only assisted by one teammate.  The top two forwards to assist Heatley at even strength were Thornton (12) and Marleau (4), giving Heatley 40% of his 40 possible even-strength assists from two forwards.

#16 Eric Fehr

Using this model, I tracked the other forwards.  Marleau had 48% of his possible even strength assists from 2 forwards, Thornton had 33%, and Pavelski had 29%.  Among the Capitals, Ovechkin had 35% of his possible assists from two forwards, Knuble had 52%, Backstrom had 41%, Laich had 38%, occasional center Fleischmann had 28%, and the very efficient Fehr had only 25% (Perhaps Fehr could use a regular center, too).

Alexander Semin had just 19% of his possible assists from two forwards. 

Some other interesting notes:  Four of Semin's 40 goals, or 10%, were unassisted, and none of these were empty net goals or penalty shot goals.  Compare this to 3 of 50 (6%) Ovechkin goals coming unassisted, of which one was a penalty shot and one was an empty net goal.  Only one Backstrom goal came unassisted, and none for Knuble.

Backstrom's Unassisted Goal

Semin is extremely adept at creating chances and goals on his own.  Besides the unassisted goals, Semin had three goals assisted by a single defenseman not named Green and another goal assisted by just Jose Theodore.

In fact, 11 of his 36 assisted goals were assisted by a single player. When given a nice pass, though, Semin will bury his chances.  Problem is, he doesn't get them all that often. 

It would also appear Semin has playmaking skills that could be better utilized.  Besides the chemistry Semin had with Ovie and Backstrom, the two players he set up the most often, he only set up one other player with any regularity:  Brooks Laich. 

In the table below, I indicate the three players he set up most often, not named Ovechkin or Backstrom, plus Brendan Morrison.

2009-10 Assists by Alexander Semin

This shows his good chemistry with Laich because he played with him often and because Laich is a good fit to play on a line with Semin, much like Knuble is a good fit for Ovechkin.  Ovie set up Knuble 15 times (3 on the powerplay), Knuble set up Ovie 8 times (3 PP), and they combined to assist on 5 more (1PP) for a total of 28 goals, 21 at even strength.  On the second line, Semin set up Laich 9 times (4 PP), Laich set up Semin 13 times (3 PP, 1 SH), and they combined to assist on 2 more (1 PP) for a total of 24 goals, 15 at even strength.  This shows that Laich is a good match to play with Semin, and he has a complementary skill set. 

Now consider that Semin had nearly the same numbers playing with Ovechkin as he did with Laich.  Semin set up Ovie 10 times (3 PP), Ovie set up Semin 5 times (2 PP), and they combined to assist on 8 more goals (5 PP) for a total of 23 goals, 13 at even strength.  While the combination might not be effective all the time because of the lack of a net-crasher, the Ovechkin-Semin combo works especially well in limited minutes. 

The information provided so far shows that even though Fleischmann and Morrison were reasonably good at setting Semin up for goals, the reverse is not true.  I believe if Semin had a reasonably talented center he played with often and was comfortable with, he would set him up more often.  This is not the first year he's had this issue.  Below is a table showing who was setting up Semin in 2008-09.

Assists on Alexander Semin's 2008-09 Goals

Semin scored 34 goals last season and more of them were set up by a defenseman than by anyone else, which is very odd.  The next two most common set-up men were top-liners Ovie and Backis, combining for just 18 of 68 possible assists, or 26%.  Sergei Fedorov was limited by injuries that season, or his numbers would have likely been higher, but he was a talented center who played with Semin often.  

Sergei Fedorov

Semin's assist numbers bear this out, too, as he set up 55% of Fedorov's goals last year.

Semin set up Green for more goals than he did anyone else.  It might be worth noting that Semin assisted on 9 fewer Mike Green goals in 2009-10 than in 2008-09 and Green's goal production dipped by 12.  It is interesting to note here as well that Laich had decent chemistry with Semin last year, but that Semin set up Ovechkin more than any other forward.

#52 Mike Green

Besides playing on the top line with Backstrom and Ovechkin, Semin needs stable quality linemates.  He has had a decent and stable left winger in Laich the past two years, but he has only had a decent center on a semi-regular basis, as the numbers show.  Fedorov's injuries, Morrison's decline, Fleischmann's incomplete game, and Belanger's lack of offensive ability have limited Semin.  They have been decent, but none of them are the answer.  They have been a huge improvement over the talent level of the players Semin used to play with.  In fact, Semin's even strength scoring has seen a big improvement in terms of per-game scoring and as a percentage of his total points.  The table below shows Semin's stats with the Caps since the lockout, keeping in mind 2007-08 was injury-plagued, and you can see Semin has been relying less and less on the powerplay for his scoring, which, along with increased overall production, means his quality of linemates has been improving overall.

 Semin's Scoring Since 2006-07

Imagine how good Semin could be if he had a stable, talented #2 center to play with at even-strength.  The 2008-09 season showed that Fedorov was the closest the Capitals got to providing that type of player, as Semin posted his highest overall points per game.  Let's hope the Capitals can provide a regular center for Semin next season who can give Semin the puck in space instead of making him do all the work himself and see if he really can be the 50-goal, 100-point player he's supposed to be.


  1. Excellent read. Now distribute that to the 29 other GMs in LA right now and let's see what we can get back.

  2. nice analysis and breakdown. hopefully, caps can get a solid #2 center, somehow work numbers with cap space and keep Semin for the long haul.