Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Alexander Semin

William Howard Taft served as the 27th President of the United States. If there ever should have been a “natural” for the job, it would have been Taft.  He had an impressive resume, one that one might have thought would have prepared him well for executing the duties of President, perhaps better than any individual ever to hold the office.  But his single term in office was a disappointment, lacking in achievements and lost in the shadow of the Theodore Roosevelt administration that preceded him.

A Washington Capital who might have been seen as a “natural,” a player of almost unparalleled skill in stickhandling and shooting, who might have been counted among the greatest players in franchise history, but who ultimately might be judged a disappointment, lost in the shadow of a teammate and fellow countryman is one contemporary Caps fans would recognize: Alexander Semin.

William Howard Taft was born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to one of the most famous families in American political history, one dating backto the late 1600’s.  His upbringing was typical of the child of a political family preparing for a career in public service.  After graduating from high school, he attended Yale College and graduated second in his class.  He returned to Ohio to enter law school, his classroom study supplemented by his working as a newspaper reporter who had the local court beat.

After graduation from law school and admission to the Ohio bar, Taft’s career climb began in earnest.  Rather than pursue reporting full-time, Taft accepted an appointment to be county assistant prosecutor.  That lasted only a year.  He was appointed by President Chester A. Arthur to become a district Collector of Revenue, a position in which he served five years before taking his first judgeship.  At only 29 years old, he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Superior Court of Cincinnati by the Governor of Ohio.  He would be elected to a full five-year term a year later (keep that thought of being elected to the position in mind).

With barely two years of experience as a superior court judge, Taft’s name would be sent by the Governor of Ohio to President Benjamin Harrison to fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court.  Taft did nothing to discourage the effort, but he would not be nominated by Harrison (that nomination went to David Josiah Brewer, who once joked of the famously overweight Taft, “Taft is the most polite man I ever saw in my life. Why, the other day I was in a street car with him and he got up and gave his seat to three women.”).  Harrison did, however, appoint Taft to be Solicitor General of the United States, the official charged with representing the United States government before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Taft lasted a little more than a year in that office before Harrison appointed him in 1891 to a newly created judgeship in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Ohio.  At this point in his career, at age 34, it appeared his career path was locked in, given that his Federal judgeship was a lifetime appointment.  It would have been, but President William McKinley called Taft to Washington in 1900 to offer him the position as head of a commission to organize a civilian government in the Philippines.  He accepted, with McKinley providing assurances that he would nominate Taft for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.

While Taft served as Governor-General of the Philippines, McKinley was assassinated.  His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was inclined to nominate Taft for the first Court vacancy that opened, but Taft declined, citing his unfulfilled goals in the Philippines.  He did, however, accept appointment as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War in 1904, which was more in the role of assistant to Roosevelt than it was as an independent administrator.

Taft served in that position for the remainder of Roosevelt’s administration, and the President settled on Taft as his preferred successor in the White House.  It made for little drama, as Taft was nominated by the Republican Party as their candidate for President in the election of 1908 on the first ballot.  He was comfortably elected in the general election over Democrat William Jennings Bryan (the third time Bryan ran on the national ticket), besting him by more than 1.2 million votes in the popular vote and by an almost 2-to-1 margin in the Electoral College (321-162).

Taft was inaugurated indoors, in the Senate Chamber of the U.S. Capitol, due to inclement weather that hit the Washington region.  It might have been a harbinger of things to come.  Taft was no natural politician, certainly lacking in the skills Roosevelt had in this area.  He isolated himself from the press, and he was far more “procedural” in his approach to governing than the charismatic Roosevelt.  His administration did, at least at first, follow a policy agenda not very different from that of his predecessor.  However, when Roosevelt went to Europe in 1909 on a trip that lasted 15 months, the physical distance become a philosophical one between the men.

Upon his return, Roosevelt expressed dissatisfaction with Taft’s progress and snubbed an invitation to the White House. The rift deepened when Roosevelt leaned harder toward a progressive agenda.  The conflict erupted at the Republican convention of 1912.  Roosevelt was successful in winning primary delegates and, in fact, won a heavy majority.  However, Taft, having inherited the party’s machinery with the party’s nomination in 1908, won a majority of delegates selected in state conventions.  His command of the party apparatus was enough to win nomination over objections from Roosevelt’s camp that the nomination was stolen (the flash point for the establishment of the Progressive Party under whose banner Roosevelt ran in 1912).

Taft, not a gifted politician, compounded his problem by not actively campaigning (a custom of the time that presidents seeking another term did not campaign).  His shortcomings as a politician, a first term lacking in noteworthy accomplishments, and the presence of Roosevelt in the race doomed his chances.  Woodrow Wilson won an election split three ways, taking 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft, who won only Vermont and Utah.

Taft’s term in office was disappointing in many ways, especially given the long list of positions he held on his way to the White House.  But in a way, that was the problem.  Almost all of the positions he held were the product of appointments or nominations by someone else – a governor or a president.  He ran on his own just three times for public office, winning a full term as a judge and twice running for the Presidency.  In that context it might not be as surprising that he was disappointing in an office that required skills he did not possess in any great measure.

Alexander Semin came to the Washington Capitals as something of an unknown commodity among casual fans, but he was a highly-regarded prospect, the second-ranked European in the NHL Central Scouting rankings of 2002 draft eligibles, behind Finnish defenseman Joni Pitkanen.  He was coming off a fine season with Traktor Chelyabinsk in Russia (13-8-21) and an impressive performance in the World Junior Under-18 torunament (8-7-15 in eight games).  At the time, Red Line Report compared Semin to Markus Naslund and said this of him:

“One of the biggest late movers up the charts. No one helped himself more at the Five Nations or World Under-18s. His game all flows from tremendous skating — one of the best pure skaters in this draft. Fabulous balance, speed and acceleration. Reaches top speed in one stride and has great cutting ability and change of direction. Has a slashing style and plays a very up-tempo game. High energy guy who rubs off on whole team. Unbelievable at taking hard passes in skates on the fly and shooting all in one motion. Terrific offensive instincts. Oustanding puck skills — quick stick, can dangle and make all his moves at top end speed. Equally adept as a sniper and play-maker. Very opportunistic around net with a quick release and can pick corners.” 

The Caps took Semin with the 13th overall pick in the first round of the 2002 draft (one of three picks the Caps had in the first 17 selections: Steve Eminger, taken with the pick before Semin, and Boyd Gordon were the others).  It would not be a smooth road from Chelyabinsk to Washington, though.  He played one more year in Russia after he was drafted, with Lada Togliatti, then made his debut with the Caps in the 2003-2004 season, posting ten goals in 52 games.  However, when the league went dark in 2004-2005 due to a labor-management dispute, Semin chose to play in Russia rather than in Portland with the Caps’ AHL affiliate.  The team suspended him, but that was only the beginning of a tortured process to get Semin to North America permanently.

In 2005-2006, Semin still had military obligations that were only partially fulfilled.  Since Lada Togliatti, the team with which he played the previous season, was in the military district in which he was conscripted, he was given permission to fulfill his remaining obligation there.  The Caps took legal action in an effort to compel Semin to report to the team.  The Caps ultimately lost this challenge, but while the process was moving to its conclusion, Semin was released from his contract with Lada Togliatti due to the financial situation of the club.  Semin did not report to the Caps, though.  He signed with Mytischi Khimik and played with that club for the remainder of the 2005-2006 season.

Finally, in 2006-2007, Semin joined the Caps, and it was quite a season.  Despite the club missing the playoffs, Semin went 38-35-73.  He was one of six players in the league that season under the age of 25 to record at least 35 goals and at least 70 points (the others were teammate Alex Ovechkin, Thomas Vanek, Ilya Kovalchuk, Sidney Crosby, and Alex Frolov).  He became just the fifth player in Caps history to record 35 or more goals in a season by the time he reached the age of 22 (the others were Mike Gartner (three times), Bobby Carpenter, Dmitri Khristich, and Alex Ovechkin).  One could envision a long run of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin – teammates and fellow countrymen – setting records for goal scoring in Washington.

The following season, Semin’s production slumped, dropping from 38 goals to 26, from 35 assists to 16, and from 73 points to 42.  The minus-7 he posted for a non-playoff team in 2006-2007 dropped to minus-18 for a playoff club in 2007-2008 (only Michal Nylander was worse at minus-19).  He rebounded in 2008-2009 to finish 34-45-79, plus-25, and he added five goals and 14 points in 14 postseason games.  He did even better in 2009-2010 regular season, posting career highs in goals (40), even strength goals (30), points (84), and plus-minus (plus-36).  It was one piece of a team that set a franchise record for wins (54) and points (121), winning the Presidents Trophy. 

Then…crickets.  In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens, Semin failed to score a goal on six shots.  He went 0-for-5 in Game 2.  Another 0-for-5 in Game 3.  By the time the series was over, the Caps losing in seven games in what qualifies as one of the biggest playoff upsets in NHL history, Semin went 0-for-44 shooting, becoming just the second player at the time in the post 2004-2005 lockout era to go without a goal in the postseason while recording at least 40 shots on goal (ironically, Joni Pitkanen, the European ranked ahead of Semin in the NHL Central Scouting rankings for the 2002 draft, did it the previous year on 46 shots for the Carolina Hurricanes) and the first forward in the modern era (post 1967 expansion) to do it.  Semin did not make up for it by setting up teammates, either.  He had just two assists in the seven games.  It was a continuation of postseason frustration for Semin, who, despite the five goals in 14 postseason games the previous season, recorded none of them in the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins (another seven-game loss).  In his most recent 14 postseason games, Semin shot 0-for-59.  The term “enigma,” which had been applied to Semin intermittently in his career (in part because of his discomfort with doing interviews in English), was now stamped plainly on his forehead

No one could have known it at the time, but that series against the Canadiens marked the beginning of a long, slow slide in Semin’s production with the Caps.  After he was re-signed to a one-year contract for the 2010-2011 season, his goal production dropped frm 40 to 28, his assists from 44 to 26, and his points from 84 to 54 in eight fewer games played than in the 2009-2010 season.  His postseason numbers improved somewhat, with four goals in nine games, but he failed to record any in the last three games (all losses) in the second-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Despite being given a $700,000 raise in another one-year contract for the 2011-2012 season, Semin’s goal scoring production dropped further, down to 21 goals, but he did finish with the same 54-point total he had the previous season.  Worse, his postseason performance continued that disturbing trend of going into hiding late.  He scored three goals in the first five games of the first-round series against the Boston Bruins, then went silent for the remaining nine games of the postseason (on 22 shots).  In his last 37 postseason games with the Caps, through 2012, Semin scored seven goals on 122 shots (5.7 percent).  He did not have a goal in 16 second round playoff games, and starting with the Pittsburgh series in 2009, he was 2-for-44 in shooting (4.5 percent) in Games 5-7 of any series.

The 2012 postseason would be his last with the Capitals.  The team did not enter into negotiations with Semin’s agent in advance of the start of the free agent signing period, and the two sides parted ways when Semin signed a one-year, $7.0 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 26, 2012.  He would later sign a five-year, $35 million extension with the club, but, unable to halt the slide in his production, had his contract bought out by the Hurricanes in July 2015.  He signed a drastically reduced one-year deal ($1.1 million) with the Montreal Canadiens.  He played in just 15 games with the Canadiens to start the 2015-2015 season before he was waived.  He went unclaimed and refused to report to the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate.  Semin returned to Russia, finishing the 2015-2016 season with Metallug Magitogorsk, his NHL career seemingly over at age 31.

William Howard Taft was a reporter, lawyer, prosecutor, superior court judge, Solicitor General of the United States, Federal judge, Governor-General of the Philippines, and Secretary of War.  His record had the appearance of one that provided him ample preparation to be President.  But underneath it all, his advancement came from the efforts of others who nominated or appointed him to many of those positions.  He never had to develop and invest the personal capital that one needs to do to be successful in politics and elective office.  He was seen by many as too much a product of Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency.  It made for a disappointing presidency that ended before many thought it would (although he would go on to serve in another position via nomination – Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the job he appeared to want more than any other).

Alexander Semin was a supremely gifted player, one with innate skills and instincts that are hard to teach, if they can be taught at all.  If one watched him on film, he was a human highlight reel.  But that term “enigma” followed him around, encapsulating a host of other attributes – the appearance of laziness in the defensive end, a propensity to take offensive zone penalties that blunted his team’s momentum, a habit of disappearing in the postseason at the worst possible times.  He was more a “sidekick” of Alex Ovechkin than a star player in his own right.  It made for a career in Washington that is among the more disappointing in recent team history, certainly one that ended long before it should have, given his talents. 

You would never look at William Howard Taft and Alexander Semin side by side and immediately see the similarities.  But in the way they came to Washington and the manner in which they left their respective positions do suggest a common road traveled.