Alexander Semin returned to the Washington Capitals lineup Thursday night against Florida after a wrist injury.
The more relevant long-term question is, how long should he stay there?
On a day when hypotheticals will be largely concentrated on the Chicago Blackhawks and how they’ll ever clear room for the contract extensions given to Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, save a few blueprints for the Caps.
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Here’s the deal in D.C.: Washington has slightly more than $36 million committed to 12 players for the 2010-11 season. Two big pieces are locked in, with Alex Ovechkin making an average salary of about $9.5 million from here to eternity and Mike Green collecting a very reasonable annual stipend of $5.25 million through 2011-12.
The Caps have a big contract coming off the books, with $4.5-million man Jose Theodore set to become an unrestricted free agent. They’ll also, presumably, finally move to get Michael Nylander and his almost $5 million annual contract — which has one more year left on it — out the door, one way or the other (meaning Kontinental League or buyout).
But things get tricky when you consider which Washington players are in line for raises.
First, Semin is a pending RFA who makes an average of $4.6 million now. Bank on his demands landing around $6 million per year. The big spike, though, will come when fellow RFA Nicklas Backstrom inks a new deal. With bonuses, his cap hit is $2.4 million right now and you have to think he’s primed for at least a $3 million raise.
Now come the role players. Ever-improving Tomas Fleischmann is an RFA, as are Boyd Gordon and Eric Fehr. David Steckel, one of the best faceoff men in the league, is a pending UFA. All four of those guys make less than $850,000, so expect some serious raises.
One last item; of the six defensemen who currently see the most average ice time for the Caps, only two — Green and Tom Poti — are under contract for next season.
All this means it’s time to start shopping Semin.
The rationale for trading an uber-talented, point-per-game player with a cannon shot in the prime of his career goes something like this:
First of all, there’s no doubt a more prudent way to invest Washington’s capital is in Backstrom, not Semin. Backstrom is the No. 1 center and Ovie’s setup man. Talented as Semin is, in some ways he’s bringing sand to the beach with Ovechkin already on the scene.
Secondly, investing big-time money in three forwards is overspending at one position. Look at the past two Stanley Cup champions for evidence of this. Detroit has sizable dough owed to Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but nobody else up front makes even $4 million annually. Pittsburgh pays Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin handsomely to carry the mail, but its next-highest check comes in at the $4 million Jordan Staal earns.
That approach leaves ample dollars to allot to high-quality players at other positions, as well as the secondary support you need amongst your forwards.
Now consider what Semin would fetch from a talent-starved team. Toronto gave Boston two first-rounders and a second-round pick for Phil Kessel, who is, really, pretty comparable to Semin. Kessel is going to score more goals, but Semin should match, if not exceed Kessel’s overall point-production. They’re both offense-only players who are never going to be your captain, but rather a golden accessory to a great squad’s true franchise player.
Though teams must be extremely careful handing over high picks, it’s also key to remember that, like the 22-year-old Kessel, 25-year-old Semin is just entering the prime of his career and — some injury concerns aside — can be a force for the next 10 years.
Think a squad like Minnesota, Nashville or Florida would be interested in that kind of player?
If you’re the Caps, it’s a phone call worth making.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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