Alexander Semin and the Need for a Second Line Center

Regardless of how this season ends for the Washington Capitals, this off-season is going to be a very interesting one.  For the first time in several years, the Caps have a large number of their key, big name players becoming free agents of both the restricted and unrestricted variety.

Among those is winger Alexander Semin, who has spent his entire NHL career with the Capitals and will, barring a contract extension, become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.  Semin is a player who has faced a lot of criticism over the last three seasons, some of it undeserved, some of it not.  He doesn’t score enough.  He doesn’t play defense.  He’s not versatile or consistent.  He “doesn’t care.”

But the bottom line is that Semin is a player who does make the Capitals better.  He has been steady, if unspectacular, for the last 40 games he has played this season in terms of point production.  He has the second highest even-strength Corsi rating among Capitals forwards who have played more than 40 games at 5.73, and he is one of only three Capitals forwards that has played 40 or more games to have a Corsi rating above zero at even strength.  In other words, he helps to possess the puck for the Capitals even when he’s not scoring.

Nevertheless, this is not, sadly, a post that is going to rattle off Semin’s valuable contributions to this Capitals team.  For that, read this piece by Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post.

In that post, Greenberg suggests that he would sign Semin this off-season for two years at $6 million per season.  As I noted above, I agree fully that Semin is a valuable player, and his contributions on both sides of the puck cannot be ignored.  However, for a salary capped team with a lot of its space tied up in one player, Alex Ovechkin, is Semin really worth $6 million per year, especially because the Capitals have such a desperate and apparent need for a second premier center?

I don’t believe he is.

Read on.

There are not many prime centers in this year’s free agent pool – that is, players that I feel would fill the glaring secondary center hole on Washington’s roster.  The only player who has ever played center at a high level who could be considered an elite player in this year’s free agent class is Zach Parise, but I expect him to fetch far more on the open market than the Capitals will be willing to spend.  And, even if Washington was able to land Parise, I’m not sure he would fully solve the problem because he’s not a true center.

Which means that the Capitals, if they intend to fill the hole this off-season, will need to do it via trade.  I’m not going to speculate on who could be available, but as the Flyers’ sale of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter showed us last summer, just about anyone can be had at the right price.

One thing that is a fairly solid bet, however, is that the center that the Capitals acquire (if they in fact, acquire one) will have a salary cap hit similar to the proposed $6 million salary for Semin in Mr. Greenberg’s article.  Which means that, in all likelihood, it would be extremely difficult to have both, because the young players that would likely be traded don’t have high cap hits.

“But, what about all the other free agents on the Capitals’ roster?  What about unrestricted guys like Dennis Wideman, Mike Knuble, Keith Aucoin, Tomas Vokoun, and Jeff Halpern that the Capitals have that will likely free up salary cap space?”  Good question.

If all five of those players were to walk, and Semin were to sign a contract with a $6 million cap hit, it would free up $8,775,000.  That’s not a lot of money at all, and with the proposed re-signing of Semin, the Capitals would need to spend that amount of money to fill four or five roster spots, including a second center.  That’s just not going to work.

The Capitals will need money to fill in the rest of their roster.  And, they need money provide new contracts for restricted free agents.

They need to find money for a new contract for John Carlson, who is a restricted free agent, providing that he is not traded to get that center.  Even though Carlson has regressed this year, I still expect him to get a raise up from the current $845,833 that he is making, last among Washington defensemen.  Mathieu Perreault, who has proven his worth this year, deserves a raise from his current $525,000 salary, and, knowing George McPhee, he will probably get it.

Mike Green should stick around.  His surgery seems to have done him well physically and finally eliminated his nagging problems, and he is still supremely talented, even though he has struggled since he came back at the beginning of March.  As a restricted free agent, Green has almost no leverage, so I expect his salary to stay the same at $5.25 million, which is the minimum the Capitals would need to offer him to keep his rights.

If Semin were to walk, however, the Capitals would have about $14.2 million in salary cap space to fill out four or five roster spots, including a prime second center, theoretically, by trade.  If that second line center were to make around $6 million, the Caps would have $8.2 million for three or four players.   That sounds, to me, a lot more realistic.

“But, Harry, if the Capitals let Semin walk, how will they compensate for the loss of one of their top scoring wingers?”  Another good question.

The answer, to me, lies within the organization.  Players like Evgeny Kuznetsov (should he come over; this is still completely up in the air as of this writing) and Stan Galiev were drafted for a reason; they’re pretty good at scoring.  Kuznetsov would almost surely be able to put up similar numbers to Semin’s in terms of offensive production right away, should he leave Russia.  Would Galiev?  No, probably not.  But everything I have heard on him from people who have watched him play in St. John indicates he should be an above average second liner in the NHL one day.  If you were to put him on a line with a very good center, I am confident he could do the job adequately right away, even if he doesn’t match Semin’s point totals.

Of course, I’m not going to sit here and act like I know exactly how the off-season is going to play out.  There could be other signings, the cap could go up because of the new collective bargaining agreement, and Semin could take a pay cut to stay in Washington.  Maybe the Capitals don’t give Green a qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent, before re-negotiating and signing him for less money in Washington.  We just don’t know.

But looking at it right now, I don’t see how the Capitals can get what they really need, that center, and keep Semin around at that high a cost.

It’s not a question of whether Semin is good or valuable, because he is both of those things, without a doubt.

It’s just a question of what’s needed more.

Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.

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