Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Sadness in Any Language


All the languages. English, Swedish, Russian, French, Czech, and many more. A common thread among them being shock and sadness over the violence of a few seconds that ended the lives of dozens of hockey players, coaches and crew aboard an aircraft that fell out of the sky on an early September morning.

Reading the first sketchy accounts on social networks of a crash of a chartered flight in western Russia seemed like a cruel hoax, the brainchild of an unscrupulous person with too much time on their hands. But then the names started coming up on the screen as testimony to the hard reality unfolding.  Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, Karel Rachunek, Brad McCrimmon – names that would be familiar to hockey fans in Europe and North America in addition to players on the club known to and cheered on by their fans in the KHL.

As time passed, the messages coming over social networks spread across all those languages. People in Europe, Canada, and the States were expressing disbelief and sorrow over the story that was unfolding along a river near Tunoshna, a town near Yaroslavl, 150 miles northeast of Moscow. The details were slow to come – an air charter carrying the team and coaches of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team to their Thursday KHL season opener in Minsk crashed on the banks of the Volga River shortly after takeoff. At first it was thought that all lives were lost, then that there was a survivor, perhaps two. It was not clear whether the passengers included all or some of the KHL team and coaches.

But as the day wore on, the grim news emerged, ultimately captured in a simple, if achingly eloquent message from team press attaché Vladimir Malkov…

"Now there is no hope. The whole team is lost."

An Associated Press report put the numbers at 45 people on board with two surviving the crash – player Alexander Galimov and a member of the flight crew. The messages posted on Twitter and other media throughout the day by correspondents Dmitry Chesnokov and Slava Malamud were heartbreaking.

And then, the languages. Messages of condolence sprouting across the Web in English, Russian, Swedish… One might not have been able to understand the words, but the names – Demitra, Liv, Vasicek, McCrimmon, and others – were clear. And one did not need to understand the words to comprehend the message of shock and grief that was being expressed for what seemed like the latest in a countless line of tragedies in this year of despair in hockey.

The days and weeks ahead will be occupied by investigations as to the cause of the crash, investigations that might have repercussions of their own. People will search for a fitting way to memorialize the victims of this tragedy – ceremonies remembering the players and crew members, wearing the Lokomotiv logo on jerseys. But for now, families and friends grieve, and fans wonder what curse has settled over the game this year, with its loss of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, and Tom Cavanagh; and now those lost from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

One thing does come to mind over the past several hours, though. There are pronouncements that an event like this highlights (as if we need it one more time) that there are things more important than a game. For that, there is no counterargument, but the game provides a sense of community. And hockey is, if nothing else, a sport that inspires a tight knit to its community, both among those who play and coach the game, and those to cheer and root for the players and their teams. Reading the messages of players today made one realize that these players might have played with – as part of national teams or NHL teams – and against many of those players who passed away this morning. The love and respect for those who might have been at times their friends, teammates, and even competitors was clear to see in the messages posted by players. The messages from fans who sought out the means to express their sadness and shock over the day’s events in so many languages reflected the importance of the game as the means to forge a community.

And in whatever language, it might be fair to say that this community lost some of its best sons and brothers today in what has become an incomprehensibly sad year in the world of hockey.

Picture: Misha Japaridze/AP

Young Guns, One and All -- Part 3: Alexander Semin in the Playoff Era

The third installment of this series on the Young Guns in the Capitals’ playoff era turns to Alexander Semin. And there is a familiar look to his history in this era. So much so that as we get to the third player in this group, some unsettling thoughts start to intrude on the review. But we will get to that. Meanwhile, if you look at Alexander Semin’s trend line of rolling ten-game point totals, there is that familiar pattern again…

(click for larger picture) 

...a thin start to the series, followed by a rather productive stretch, and then a fade that results in a trend line that diverges from that of the comparable standings points trend line over the period. Semin’s trend over the period resembles that of Nicklas Backstrom, except more so – a slower start and a weaker finish. The reasons here, however, might have less to do with production factors as it does health. Health (we include games missed in the rolling ten-game plot) affects Semin more than it does either Ovechkin or Backstrom. While the latter two have missed a total of 21 regular season games over the past four years (the years under examination here), Semin missed a total of 65 games of his own.

And there is an unsurprising dynamic about the matter of health. Semin played in what was arguably his healthiest stretch of hockey in a period covering 125 games from January 3, 2009 (game 40 of the 2008-2009 season) through the end of the 2009-2010 season. Semin played in 114 of 125 games (91 percent) over that period and went 60-71-131, plus-41 (a per-82 game pace of 43-51-94, plus-29).

But if you compare that to the rest of this four-year playoff period, Semin played in only 149 of 203 games (73 percent) and went 68-60-128, plus-24. On a per-82 game basis that works out to 37-33-70-52, plus-13. It is small wonder, then, that Semin has that swell of production in the middle of his series – he was healthy and out-produced his career totals and the games of the series when his health was a sporadic thing.

And that brings us to the divergence. Again, just as was the case with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, there is a divergence in Alexander Semin’s scoring trend line from that of the comparable standings points trend line that begins early in the 2010-2011 season. Semin had a fast start – 18-12-30, plus-8 (a 59-39-98, plus-26 pace) and a pair of hat tricks in the team’s first 25 games covering the first two months of the season. The key there being that Semin played in each of those games. But starting on December 1st, Semin played in only 40 of 57 games, going 10-14-24, plus-14 (a 21-29-50, plus-29 pace).

That plus-29 pace over the last 40 games in which Semin played mitigates somewhat the significant drop in offensive production – the team did alter its philosophical approach to emphasize defense. But there is the nagging thought that more than philosophy, it is Semin’s ability (or rather, inability) to stay in the lineup for long stretches that is what is holding him back from being a truly elite producer. That 125 game stretch in which he played consistently – 91 percent of the games played – shine rather brightly as an indicator of what a durable Semin could be.

We are not going to use this entry as an opportunity to pile on to commentary about Semin’s work ethic, his capacity to care, or his threshold for enduring physical discomfort. We are no better than anyone else in our ability to crawl inside a player’s head and figure out what’s going on in there (which is to say, we have no such ability whatsoever). But it seem quite clear that Semin is a more consistent, more devastating player on offense when he gets into the lineup and stays in the lineup. When he is in and out because of injury, he cannot establish a consistency or a rhythm to his game. He is almost the caricature of the high-end sports car that is temperamental in terms of consistent performance, but a dream to drive when it is running smoothly on all cylinders.

And that brings us to those unsettling thoughts intruding on this review as we wind our way through Alexander Semin’s performance. So far, all three of the “Young Guns” have seen their potential to pop poop out in the latter stages of this four-year period. Perhaps the systematic drop in production is just that – a product of implementing a different philosophy a third of the way through the 2010-2011 season. That each of the players’ production started to diverge from the standings point trend line makes this a plausible explanation.

On the other hand, this is – in terms of games played – a cohort with somewhat similar developmental paths. Semin and Ovechkin had played in fewer than 200 games apiece before the 2007-2008 season; Backstrom was a rookie. Two of them – Semin (40-44-84, plus-36) and Backstrom (33-68-101, plus-37) – had career years in 2009-2010; Ovechkin was on pace to shatter his career high in points (a 124-point pace) and was a career-best plus-45. Could it be that these three were settling into more of a career norm of production last season?

Having seen Alexander Semin’s numbers, we are left wondering if the drop in production was “system-influenced” or an artifact of having already seen the best these three have to offer, career-wise, in terms of offensive production. That will make the 2011-2012 season interesting to watch for each of these three players. But that is getting ahead of ourselves. We still have one Young Gun to look at, and we will get to that shortly.