You often encounter the word “mercurial” in the world of sports. Sports journalists slap the adjective in front of the names of inconsistent players. Mercurial athletes tantalize you with second-to-none play in one moment and devastate you by vanishing into oblivion the next. They’re more than streaky; they’re hair-losingly maddening. And they tend to wear out their welcome.

Why the long face, Alexander Semin? The Carolina Hurricanes are giving you a second chance.
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Why the long face, Alexander Semin? The Carolina Hurricanes are giving you a second chance.

The Canes have just signed such a player. The Russian winger Alexander Semin, who sniped 197 goals in seven seasons with the Washington Capitals, scrawled his name on a one-year deal with Carolina this week.

Semin’s talent is hard to figure out. He scored 40 goals just a few seasons ago, seeming to have come of age into an elite scorer and point-a-game player, the kind of guy whose name you etch onto trophies. But over the last couple of seasons, his effort has waxed and waned. Coaches have benched him here and there to try to motivate him. Caps fans had come to jeer him more than cheer for him. He netted just three goals and one assist in 14 playoff games this year.

Many hockey fans would tell you there’s something mercurial in the Russian nature. Alexei Kovalev, Alexander Ovechkin and former Cane Sergei Samsonov all fit the profile: wingers who appear to have the talent to score at will and skate circles around opponents, but that are as likely to turtle after a big hit and simply drift around the ice or need a map to find the defensive zone. Sometimes you forget that they’re playing. Other times, they make you forget that anyone else is playing.

For Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford, it’s a high-risk, high-reward move. Or is it? The risk is, in hockey terms, minimal and exactly quantifiable: $7 million. Semin’s one-year deal makes a divorce easy if he underachieves, i.e. pots fewer than 35 goals.

Because that’s what Semin does. He scores goals. He’s not coming to Raleigh to vie for the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward. Jordan Staal’s now here to combine backchecking with goal-scoring. Semin’s here to uncork his incomparable wrist shot and pump his fist when it goes in.

When Jordan Staal came on board, there was speculation that either he or his brother—both of them centers—might move to a wing so they could play on a line together. But now with Semin in the mix it’s not hard to see the Russian on Eric’s wing with Jiri Tlusty, who clicked there last year, or maybe a workhorse like Chad LaRose. Jordan can anchor the second line with Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu.

Regardless of the lineup, coach Kirk Muller will have options the likes of which a Canes coach hasn’t had in years. And he’ll have a world-class shot on the power play now, too.

You have to hand it to Rutherford. He’s been busting his butt to make good on his promise to upgrade the forward corps this off-season. Not being a marquee free-agent venue, Raleigh has had trouble attracting A-list stars.

Rutherford reputedly made a contract offer to the best unrestricted free agent this summer—Zach Parise of the Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils—but the gritty scorer signed a mongo 13-year, $98 million deal with the Minnesota Wild. Whaaaat? The Canes can’t sink so much into one player. It’s debatable, in fact, if the Wild, or almost any other team, can. Which is why the league and the players union are turning up the rhetorical heat in collective bargaining negotiations at the moment.

The Hurricanes can’t pull off straight-up UFA signings for the best players. They don’t have the money to offer. They don’t have a team that’s necessarily going to be competitive every single year. And Raleigh doesn’t shimmer like New York or Philadelphia or Chicago. Rutherford needs another way in to lure a top player.

After Parise signed, Rutherford turned his attention to the special situation of Rick Nash in Columbus. Nash wanted out of Ohio, where the Jackets have been almost willfully bad since they entered the league. The scorer has been the poster boy for “boy, imagine his numbers if he played for a good team” bar-stool speculation. And, in international play, Nash and Eric Staal had clicked. Rutherford presented a case to Nash’s agent.

But Nash had a no-trade clause on his deal with the Jackets. He could nix any deal. And Carolina wasn’t one of the five teams he told Columbus ownership he’d play for, despite Rutherford’s courting. Nash found his way to Broadway last week, swapped to the Rangers.

A look at the deals that Rutherford has been able to pull off gives a sense of where the Canes are in the NHL pecking order. Jordan Staal, having already put his name on the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, came to Raleigh via trade in order to play with his big brother. That’s an in that no other team could match.

Semin’s the hot sports car with undiagnosable engine trouble. Almost four weeks after UFA players became available to any team, he was still sitting in the lot and pundits were speculating that he’d sign his next contract with a Russian league team, leaving the NHL for the foreseeable future. Some franchise would have to take a chance. Carolina has kicked Semin’s tires and slapped NC plates on him.

Even a two-year deal for Semin, at this moment, would be madness. If he drifts around the ice this fall, there’s no way Rutherford will find a patsy to offload him onto, like he did with the abhorrent wraith Tomas Kaberle, whom he sent to Montreal.

But a one-year contract, for any money, shows that Rutherford wants to see more goals and more excitement. And maybe it motivates Semin to treat the year like an audition for Parise-like riches once he’s a UFA again next summer. Caniacs should ignore the price tag and buckle up. Who cares how many miles per gallon a hot sports car gets?