Alexander Semin had always been an enigma in the NHL. Living in Northern Virginia, there was never a shortage of Semin talk among the Caps fans I saw regularly. He always showed flashes of brilliance in the offensive zone and had lightning quick hands.
Semin scored more than 40 points in each of the six seasons he played with the Washington Capitals before signing with the Hurricanes in 2013. In these seasons he scored more than 20 goals in all of them, reaching a high of 40 in 2009-2010.
However, with the good came the bad. Semin was often knocked for not trying hard and for not playing defense. The joke used to be a goal, an assist, and an offensive zone stick penalty equaled a Semin hat-trick. As soon as he would lose the puck in the offensive zone he wouldn’t skate and take a penalty instead.
The common approach was to sign him to short term contracts because that way he would have to continue trying to score and produce to earn his keep for the next season or two. The Caps followed this strategy by signing him originally to a two-year contract in 2007. They followed this up with a one-year contract extension in 2009 (for the 2010-2011 season), and another one-year contract in 2011.
Initial success but failed long term
At the time the Canes had well-documented scoring issues. During the 2011-2012 season Eric Staal led the team in scoring with 24 goals, so when the Russian winger came available in July 2012, GM Jim Rutherford made a push. Semin was initially signed for one year for $7 million, a slight raise from the $6.3 million he made the previous season with the Caps.
Initially things looked good, and Semin scored 13 goals and 44 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season. Things looked good for Semin and the Canes, but this was the pinnacle of his time in Carolina. Semin would be bought out just two seasons later — but not before signing a five-year, $35 million contract, the remnants of which the Hurricanes will be paying out until 2021.
Alex Semin Points per Season
So what would have happened if the Canes never re-signed the winger and weren’t still carrying his cap hit today?
The biggest mistake any small market team can make, regardless of the sport, is missing with big contracts. The Canes got one productive season out of Semin and then were stuck carrying $28 million of dead weight. For a team that’s not going to spend to the cap every year, that crushes your ability to go out and sign other big names.
This signing didn’t just affect the cap; it was one of the reasons Jim Rutherford would eventually step down and one of the reasons that then-owner Peter Karmanos would be loath to spend money to make another splash in free agency. The Canes would return to being a bargain-basement team for years to come.
The Canes’ largest free agent signing since Semin is the four-year, $24.5 million deal given to Calvin de Haan this offseason, followed closely by Justin Williams’ two-year, $9 million contract from last summer. Only one other contract since Semin signed was worth more than $3 million: Lee Stempniak’s, who signed a two-year, $5 million contract.
In 2014 alone, players like Paul Stastny ($7 mil), Ryan Miller ($6 mil), Anton Stralman ($4.5 mil), and Matt Niskanen ($5.75 mil) were all switching teams, while the Canes were signing (checks notes) ...uh, Aaron Palushaj. With every other team in the Metropolitan Division willing to spend to acquire these types of players, the Canes quickly fell to the bottom of the division where they have lived ever since.
Without an unproductive $7 million on the books, the Canes could have acquired one or more of these players to shore up depth and scoring issues, increasing their chances of making it back into the playoffs. Adding someone like Stastny as a top 6 center, or Stralman as a top pairing defenseman, can drastically change the makeup and ability of a team.
This is something that new owner Tom Dundon seems to believe in and we are starting to see the Canes finally comfortable with spending more money to acquire better players instead of relying on a draft and develop only scheme. While drafting works, it takes years for your players to reach the NHL and when you miss on a couple of drafts, which the Canes have done it hurts even worse.
Would Eric Staal Have Stayed?
If the Canes were able to sign more effective players and even stay around the playoff line very year, the Canes very likely wouldn’t have traded Eric Staal. While the Canes got a good return for their captain, they have lacked formal leadership and scoring in his absence. Staal has totaled more than 60 points and 20 goals in each of his seasons since leaving Carolina.
A top line scoring center has been at the top of everyone’s wish list for ages at each deadline, draft, and free agent period, but the Canes have struggled to get that top guy. If they had instead re-signed Eric Staal, they would still have that guy — or have even more flexibility in the top six with multiple players that can play both the wing and center.
But you may be thinking “What about the return in the trade?” Aleksi Saarela is still showing great potential in the AHL, with an outside chance to make the roster. The other pieces were second round picks. The first was traded to Chicago in a package that brought Teuvo Teravainen to the Canes.
While Teravainen has been great for the Canes, this isn’t a stellar return for a franchise leader and captain. Also, with Staal still in the lineup, you can argue that the Canes wouldn’t have to make a move for Teravainen. If they did still feel the need to make the trade, they could have used the pick that became Janne Kuokkanen in 2016. Likely with Staal and Teravainen in place, the pick wouldn’t have been necessary to make and could have been dangled in another deal.
Semin’s contract was good value had he continued his performance from the first season he spent in Carolina. But instead, it quickly became an albatross, and a costly one. Every year since 2015 (and for the next three beyond now), when the Canes write a $2.3 million check to Semin to pay his buyout, it’s a reminder of how much better spent that money could have been.