President and General Manager Jim Rutherford had a priority heading into the offseason: add a top-six forward to the lineup.
He ended up adding two.
The Hurricanes inked winger Alexander Semin to a one-year, $7 million dollar deal on Thursday, the team’s second headline-grabbing signing of the summer after acquiring forward Jordan Staal in a draft-day trade.
“I’m really excited about signing Alex Semin yesterday. I think this is a big step for our team,” Rutherford said at a Friday press conference. “Talked to Kirk [Muller] yesterday, Ronnie [Francis], Jason [Karmanos] and Mr. Karmanos – throughout the organization we are very excited about this.”
Bringing the 28-year-old Semin into the fold gives the Hurricanes a top six – including the Staal brothers, Semin, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen and perhaps Jiri Tlusty – that’s arguably as dangerous as any in the Eastern Conference. It also leaves the team with a bottom six that is still capable of regular contribution and power play combinations that could be lethal.
“We are a much stronger team going into the season than we have been in a long time,” Rutherford said. “The fact that we’re now going out and paying a free agent $7 million is making a pretty strong statement about where we feel our team is at and where we think we can go.”
And Rutherford said the signing will be worth every penny if Semin plays the way of which he is capable.
Semin has totaled 408 points (197g, 211a) in 469 career regular-season NHL games. He is one of 18 NHL players to average at least 30 goals over the last six seasons. In 2009-10, the Krasnoyarsk, Russia, native recorded a career-high 40 goals and 84 points.
Semin is a plus-65 in his career, and his plus/minus rating of plus-92 over the last four seasons ranks fifth among all NHL players.
“He’s a player that, right from the time he was drafted, is one of the most skilled players in the league,” Rutherford said. “Now, we’d like to think with the way Kirk does things, our approach, how our training camp is, how our practices are and fitting him in with Eric, we can get that consistency out of him.”
Semin is no stranger to the Hurricanes. A member of the division rival Washington Capitals, he has faced the Canes six or more times per season since the lockout. Statistics-wise, he was his most successful against the Canes; in 41 games against Carolina, Semin recorded 27 goals and 18 assists (45 points).
“I’ve always had a very strong opinion of him as a player. Of course, we’ve seen it first hand,” Rutherford said. “He certainly hasn’t been a friend of the Hurricanes as an opponent. He’s scored some very key goals against us.”
With that in mind, you could say the process of scouting Semin started years ago. But the first substantial move in evaluating Semin as a potential free-agent target happened at the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh when Rutherford had a “relatively long conversation” with Semin’s former coach, Bruce Boudreau.
“That was the start of us really doing our homework leading up to this signing,” he said. “Several people in our front office tried to reach out to as many people who have crossed paths with Alex in his career – former players, former coaches, former scouts. You get different reviews from different people. But certainly the positives much outweighed any people that had a negative experience with him.”
In addition to seeking the opinions of those around the league and his front office staff, Rutherford utilized extensive analytics to assess Semin’s performance.
According to statistics provided by the Hurricanes Senior Director of Communications Mike Sundheim, Semin ranked in the 99th, 96th, 99th and 90th percentile among league forwards in the last four seasons as it relates to goals per 60 minutes in high pressure situations (defined as the game being tied in the second or third period, a one-goal differential in the third or the game being in overtime).
More, Semin ranked in the 100th, 96th, 97th and 92nd percentile among league forwards in the last four seasons as it relates to points per 60 minutes in high pressure situations.
“His numbers were extremely high,” Rutherford said. “For his critics that don’t do the same homework we do, those numbers would certainly indicate that he’s quite a bit of a different player than some people suggest.”
When free agency opened at noon on July 1, Rutherford was prepared. Semin, he said, was number two on the team’s wish list of forwards behind Zach Parise, who had ruled out Carolina by the day’s end.
Rutherford said he was in regular contact with Semin’s agent, Mark Gandler, and felt there was no point in time where the team didn’t have a legitimate chance at signing him.
After recently discussing the matter with his parents, Semin agreed to the one-year deal with the Hurricanes, the team’s second top-six forward signing in what has been a statement-making offseason.
“It’s a period of time for both the player and the team to figure out if this is the right fit for him,” Rutherford said. “He will have the same options a year from now that he has now. One of his big options is that he could sign for a lot more money and a lot longer in Russia, which tells me a lot about this player in that he wants to play in the NHL and wants to be successful here.
“I’d like to think that he [will have] good chemistry with our team, he [will like] living here like everybody else does and that this is just the start of a long-term relationship.”