Alex Semin's signing with the Habs came as a surprise to many (myself included), but in many ways he is exactly the kind of player the Montreal Canadiens have been looking for. Not only does he have a terrific track record as a top-six scorer at even strength (excluding his dreadful 2014-15 season), but he also possesses the right-handed one-timer from the low slot which has been the main missing ingredient on the Habs' powerplay. Combined with his puck possession bona fides and an underrated ability to play on the penalty kill, and it is hard to see how the Habs could have gone wrong by offering Semin a one-year, 1.1 million dollar contract.
However, it would be foolish to assume that Semin would fit in seamlessly with the team, and that he would assuredly score 20-25 goals next season. If we look beyond his supposed work ethic issues and ignore the assumption that all Russian players are "enigmatic," we are still left with some very legitimate concerns on whether Semin can become a key contributor for the Habs in 2015-16.
I've gone back and looked at every single goal Alex Semin scored during his career-best 2009-10 season (when he got 40 with the Washington Capitals), and his 22-goal year with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2013-14. I decided to give him a mulligan for last year's six-goal performance, but comparing 2010 and 2014 should give a fair idea of the effect of age on Semin's effectiveness.
In short, what we have here is a great offensive player who is no longer in his prime years, and who will have to rely on accommodating teammates and coaches to make the most of his scoring talent.
1) The Neutral-Zone Weave
First, the bad news. 2010 Semin was one of the most explosive offensive players in the world, playing under a run-and-gun system which allowed him to carry the puck, weave through defenders and unleash his shot at will. 2014 Semin, on the other hand, was a much more predictable player.
Looking at the tape, the biggest difference we notice is that Semin is no longer much of a scoring threat from the right side of the ice. Despite technically playing right-wing, Semin is really much more of a left-winger from the red-line out. Instead of sticking to his side of the ice, the Russian prefers to gather the puck somewhere near his zone, pick up speed through the neutral zone and use the entire width of the ice.
This does two things: 1) it forces opposing defenders to switch coverage, potentially opening up holes which he can exploit later, and 2) it allows Semin to enter the offensive zone with speed, control of the puck, and a better shooting angle.
In 2013-14, Semin scored 14 of his goals off the rush, with a wrist shot. Only two of them came on the right side of the ice.
Most of the goals kind of looked like this:
The video above isn't a perfect example, since the penalty-killers pretty much gave up the blueline and allowed Semin to take his time with the puck. At even strength, he'll have to do the Semin Weave between the red line and the blue line. But you can already see the pattern - he has his head up, finds open ice, and gets himself in a good spot to use his wrist shot. He's not definitely not going to pass.
For a skilled player like Semin, the neutral-zone weave is a great way to create a quality scoring chance. But here we run into the main costs of doing business with him, something that will inevitably get him into trouble with teammates, coaches and fans during his stint in Montreal.
a) Semin will turn the puck over, sometimes.
b) Semin will go offside, a lot.
If at some point his coaches decide that using the whole width of the ice is not worth the risk (I think it almost always is), they might forbid him from using the left side on zone entries and/or demote him to a bottom-six role alongside players like Torrey Mitchell, Dale Weise, Devante Smith-Pelley or Michael Bournival who prefer to play a strictly north-south game. Doing so would be a mistake, as it would only serve to exacerbate the two problems. Also, he'll probably finish the season with six goals, again.
At even-strength, getting him with the right players and allowing him to play to his strengths will go a long way. Pairing him with a responsible and well-rounded centerman like Lars Eller and a creative, like-minded scorer like Max Pacioretty may yield dividends.
2) Powerplay Fit
In 2013-14, Carolina had one of the worst powerplay units in the entire NHL. Semin finished second on the team with six PP goals (Jeff Skinner had 11). He scored four of his six powerplay goals on one-timers from the left side of the ice. The other goals were off wrist shots, also from the left side of the ice.
I've written in the past about why having an extra right-handed forward is so critical to the Canadiens' 1-3-1 powerplay, so I won't repeat myself much here. But one thing Semin has, that P.A. Parenteau never had, is a hard, accurate one-timer from the left side of the ice. Not only is the shot technically flawless, Semin's positioning also increases the probability that his shot will find the back of the net.
But there's a problem. Under Michel Therrien, the Habs have never used four forwards on the powerplay for an extended period of time. Semin has never been much of a grinder in his prime years, and in 2013-14 he scored zero goals off rebounds or deflections. Brendan Gallagher is a more effective net-front presence than Semin, and putting the Russian in the middle of traffic would be doing his skillset a disservice anyway. So he won't bump off a forward on the first unit, and letting that shot release go to waste on 30 seconds' worth of second-wave duty would be a shame.
Ideally, Semin would supplant Jeff Petry on the first powerplay unit. In the 1-3-1 formation, Alex Galchenyuk would be the playmaker below the goal line, Semin is the pure shooter on the left sideboard, Gallagher is the "hole guy" in the middle of the slot, Pacioretty is a shooting/passing option on the right sideboard, and P.K. Subban would hold the fort and offer another right-handed one-timer option from the top of the point.
If the coaching staff goes with the above five-man group for the first unit, it would allow them to roll David Desharnais, Zack Kassian, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov and Nathan Beaulieu on the second unit. The great thing about this setup, is that they could be coached to do the exact same thing as the first unit, but mirrored. Markov and Plekanec would shoot off the lateral feeds, and the opposing defense would face a tall task in flipping their defensive coverage depending on who is on the ice.
But of course, first the coaches would have to get Semin on the ice and let him play to his strengths. And that's half the battle.
Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.