Would You Rather: Ales Hemsky or Alex Semin

Jonathan Willis
July 15 2012 02:55PM

Alexander Semin, the Washington Capitals winger who has averaged 31 goals per season since the NHL lockout, is still on the market two weeks into free agency. His demands aren’t crazy, either – according to Capitals’ beat reporter Chuck Gormley, he’s seeking a two-year deal in the $10 million range (h/t Spector). Given that Ales Hemsky re-upped with the Oilers on exactly that deal, it made me wonder: which player would be a better fit in Edmonton?

Now we are, of course, dealing in hypotheticals. Alex Semin is the kind of player the Oilers typically avoid like the plague: there are some unverified rumours that he’s not blessed with excessive work ethic, and that’s generally when it seems the Oilers stop being interested. Toss in Pierre McGuire huffing and puffing and blowing Semin’s reputation down, and that’s probably all she wrote.

But Semin does score. Not just in the regular season, but in the playoffs, too – despite reputation. Since the lockout, Semin’s been a more productive playoff performer on a per-game basis than Ryane Clowe, Ryan Smyth, Tomas Plekanec, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Ray Whitney, Chris Kunitz, Valtteri Filppula, Milan Lucic, Thomas Vanek, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Jiri Hudler, Dustin Penner, Travis Zajac, Jordan Staal, Jason Arnott, Ryan Callahan, Dan Cleary, Tomas Fleischmann and a bunch of others (there’s a nice, detailed teardown of the idea that Semin doesn’t produce in the post-season here).

There’s another interesting thing worth noting about Semin: his plus/minus. Now, plus/minus is not a perfect indicator, by any stretch – it includes power play goals against and shorthanded goals for, as well as empty net goals, meaning that there’s an inherent bias against players who are out trying to score goals on the power play or with 1:00 left and the goalie pulled, and an inherent bias for the defensive guys who man the PK and defend a lead with one minute left. Even without that, on a year-to-year basis plus/minus bounces around thanks to shooting and save percentage – items which are often erratic. Over the long-term, though, plus/minus generally does tell us which guys are outscoring the other team.

Over the last four seasons, Alexander Semin is plus-92. That sounds impressive, but what does it mean? It means that there are only three forwards (just one line actually) in the league with a better plus/minus over that span: Sedin, Sedin and Burrows. Semin’s plus-92 is 19 goals better than the next-best Capitals forward, Nicklas Backstrom, and 23 goals better than Alex Ovechkin. Even on a good team, it’s a remarkable number.

I’m confident that Semin’s plus/minus is meaningful because all of the fancy underlying numbers tell us the same thing: that whatever his defensive shortcomings (which I’m more than happy to acknowledge exist) he makes up for them with offense. And that’s the thing about the NHL: offense doesn’t matter in and of itself, and defense doesn’t matter in and of itself: the only thing that matters is scoring more than the opposition. Semin brings that, and he does it in spades.

Semin vs. Hemsky

Why this video? Because it is and likely always will be one of my favourite Hemsky memories, right up with his two goals in Game 6 against Detroit.

These are different players: Hemsky’s a play-making right-wing, Semin a goal-scorer who can play on either side. Hemsky typically plays tough minutes and has more defensive responsibility than a typical scoring winger in the NHL; Semin generally plays against lower-tier opposition (having Ovechkin on the other scoring line does that) and has been allowed to just go out and create offense.

Since the lockout, though, the two players are awfully similar in total point production. Hemsky has played 429 games over seven seasons, recording 367 points. Semin has played 417 games over six seasons, recording 386 points. The key difference between the two offensively is that Semin has 187 goals to Hemsky’s 106.

There are a bunch of other things in Semin’s favour. For one, he has played frequently on left wing since the lockout; Hemsky got a brief cameo in the position last year but hasn’t done it for any length of time. Semin is listed at 6’2”, 208lbs; Hemsky at 6’, 192lbs. More importantly, Semin hasn’t had the same health issues that Hemsky has – he’s averaged 72 games per season over the last three years; Hemsky has averaged just 46.

The Other Stuff

At some point, the good that Semin does on the ice needs to outweigh his reputation off it, doesn’t it? Particularly given that the off-ice reputation is pretty vague, beyond Pierre McGuire’s contention that he kills coaches? Teams all over the league are crying out for offense, and Semin’s a high-end talent.

In the case of the Oilers, they could upgrade their size, health, replace a playmaker with a goal-scorer, and then (probably) deal away the playmaker for a pretty good defenseman. In that respect, the question is less, ‘Would you rather have Semin or Hemsky’ than it is ‘Would you rather have Semin and a top-four defender or Hemsky?’

All of this is hypothetical, of course – everything this front office has said over the years has indicated that character and reputation are important factors in their decision-making process. But given the choice laid out above, I’m curious what our readers would do if they were in a position to make the decision.

THIS WEEK BY JONATHAN WILLIS

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.