Alex Semin, showing his total lack of effort and passion by winning a puck battle.

Free agency 2012 hasn’t been much of a frenzy.  Minnesota’s been hoarding and Nashville’s been pillaged, but most franchises have been quiet and many players remain unsigned.  Among these, the most prominent is Alex Semin, former Capital, gifted scoring winger, and, apparently, the least popular man in hockey.  While most free agents of any quality whatsoever see their value pumped up beyond reason in their UFA year- two years ago no one had a $98 million hard-on for Zach Parise- Semin has been the object of the most thorough, brutal, and unrelenting bashing the hockey media has laid on a scorer in my lifetime.  Note, however, that nobody dares to say that Semin isn’t good at hockey.  The evidence is very clear that Semin is good at hockey.  Rather, they attack him by saying he isn’t good in the room.

They say he doesn’t try.  They say he doesn’t care.

***

It is impossible to know what another person is feeling. Human beings have blasted into the outer heavens and dropped into the deepest oceans, but for all our technological advancements, we are no more able to enter into the heart of another than we were five thousand years ago (although we’re less likely to attribute black moods to demon possession, which is progress of a kind). The inside of someone else’s head is a foreign country you will never travel to. It’s customs seem very similar to your own, you have heard reports of events there. But you will never know for yourself. All you think you know about its climate and culture is based on hearsay, suspicion, and faith.

There is a whole set of hockey intangibles that are defined by dispositions. Feelings, really, events in the faraway lands of hockey player amygdalas. Passion, heart, intensity, commitment. Caring. Trying. These are not particular actions, like skating or fighting, they’re not even general actions, like toughness or grit. They’re emotions. They’re inside things, happening far beyond the boundaries of our knowing.

It is impossible to know, for sure and certain, how much a player cares.

***

Most of the time, the expression of feelings corresponds more or less to the reality of feelings. We act in the way we feel. We smile when we’re happy and we sigh when we’re sad and run around scattered and frazzly when we’re stressed, and on and on. It’s mostly safe to assume that people feel inside the way they seem to feel outside.

This must be true for hockey-feelings as well. A lot of the trash-talk you see on the ice is probably genuine hate, or at least genuine trollery. Many of those super-focused expressions probably come from actual super-focusing; a lot of that hustle probably represents real eagerness. A lot of hockey emotion is exactly what it looks like. But not all of it.

***

The surface appearance of feelings does not always match the interior reality of feelings. Some people express the things they feel in unconventional ways: those who remain eerily calm on the surface no matter how tense they feel inside, those who never cry no matter how sad they might be. It is not fair to assume that simply because someone is not displaying the conventional behaviors we associate with a feeling that they therefore do not feel it. External expression is not the same as internal experience, and in some cases, to assume that they are is not just incorrect but insulting. If you see a person the day after a relative died, the humane thing is to assume that they are suffering, whether or not their eyes are red and puffy.

The same must be true for hockey player intangibles. To reach the NHL takes an incredible amount of dedication and sacrifice, a whole childhood and adolescence dedicated mostly to training, practicing, and competing. The root of hockey skill is in the genes, but even the most genetically gifted have to put in thousands of hours to hone their skills to pro-level. Granted, not everyone works equally hard, but even the laziest NHLer has worked harder at hockey than you or I have ever worked at anything. To accuse them of not trying or not caring is no small insult, and to level it with no personal knowledge of the player is an act of hubris. The humane thing is to assume that they care, no matter what symbols of caring we see on the surface.

***

Sometimes, though, it goes the other way. Sometimes people perform feelings they’re not actually experiencing. This is especially common in the world of work, where our very living may depend on emotional states. We have superiors who expect us to care a lot and try really hard. We have peers who watch us to see if we do. But the truth is that nobody cares all the time. Nobody works hard all the time. No matter how deep our passion or focused our attention, things happen every day- fatigue and boredom and personal problems and whatever- that eat little holes our dedication. But, over time, we learn to fake it. We learn how to put on a performance that fills in the gaps when our real feelings don’t quite measure up to the ones we’re supposed to have. We learn, essentially, social theatrics.

Little hockey players growing up in Canada learn a lot about the theatrics of trying and caring. Because it takes so much work to get to the pros, at the lower levels coaches are constantly weeding out those they don’t think have the intensity of feeling for the long haul. Young hockey players who are perceived as passive, lazy, or ambivalent will have a harder time progressing and will find themselves treated worse along the way. They’ll be the object of more cuts, more insults, more callings-out. Like anyone in any profession, if they want to continue, at some point, most of them learn that it’s in their interest to fake certain things when they don’t feel them.

The seasons are long and none of them are easy, and in them every hockey player experiences moments of selfishness,  disinterest, exhaustion, and non-fuck-giving. Every single one. The ones who never seem to are the ones who learned best how to fake it.

***

I suspect a lot of hockey players- especially the borderline ones, especially those whose advancement was never certain- learn the importance of performing effort early and never give it up, until it becomes nearly as real as real effort, a Pavlovian response, like a model’s smile. The guys on the borderline know that the little gestures of being out early for warm ups, of hustling extra hard on the backcheck, of saying all the right things about team-first and 110% can add up to the difference between another year in the NHL and an early retirement. For them, the performance is mandatory, and being mandatory, eventually becomes automatic. Covering their doubts, swallowing their frustrations, and suppressing their egos are part of the skill set, and eventually, it doesn’t matter whether they really feel it or not, only that they’re willing to act like they feel it constantly.

Eventually the performance becomes more important than the reality.

***

Some people don’t perform. Some are morally opposed to pretense and dishonesty. Some are terrible actors who can’t fake anything convincingly. Some honestly don’t care what anyone else thinks. But whatever the reason, we often find such people disconcerting. Performance is ingrained in the heart of civilized society; it smooths the progress of life, for ourselves and for others. Few of us like it, but for most, it’s a minor, necessary evil, a sort of little white lie. When we encounter a person who refuses to participate- a coworker who openly spends an hour on Facebook without so much as spreading some papers out on the desk, or who freely admits he’s got no intention of taking some work on The Important Project home with him- we are almost reflexively offended, not because they’re not working but because they’re not even bothering to make it look like their working. In the end, those people may very well not be getting any less work done than the rest of us, and in fact could easily be working more efficiently. But we’ll still think less of them, even if their results are great, because they haven’t put on the right act.

You can see this kind of stunned offense in the hockey world’s response to players who don’t go through the expected paces of effort. Coaches come up through the developmental leagues working with players who will all put on the expected performance in order to move forward. The vast majority of players come up the same way. For them, it is just understood that you should be doing the little things that signify possession of awesome intangibles, whether it’s talking on the bench or giving an opponent a little extra cross-check in a scrum or spending some extra time in the weight room. Most of them have gone to autograph signings they didn’t really care about just to seem like a team guy.  Many of them have fought fights they didn’t want to fight because the coach expected it. You do those things either out of genuine desire or because it would be detrimental to your career not to seem to have genuine desire. Paradoxically, caring enough to fake it becomes itself proof that you care. When someone comes into this environment who isn’t interested in this performance, it’s shocking in more than just an individual sense. It’s a shock to the culture. It upsets the balance of social expectations.

***

I don’t know how much Alex Semin tries or cares. I don’t know how much any hockey player tries or cares, because I can’t see trying. I can’t see caring. All I can see is the performance. All I see is the theatrics of effort. It may be true that Semin is not as good at (or as interested in) putting on the kind of performance of genial hard work we like to see from hockey players, and it may be true that his coaches and some teammates find this off-putting. He’s defying the behavioral expectations they have come to see as standard, and it may be possible that some of them find him difficult to like because of it.

But this is hockey. It’s not kindergarten and it’s not a presidential election, and you do not win by being likeable- in fact, from Eddie Shore to Patrick Roy, teams have been winning with unlikeable guys for eighty years. Some players are unlikeable because they’re egotistical, some because they’re depressed, some because they have strange tics, some because they’re don’t perform the standard cliches, but fact is all those types of bad-in-the-room guys have won Cups.

An individual player’s likeability, the way he performs his emotions, may contribute in some small, fractional way to his team’s success, but you know what contributes even more? Scoring goals. In fact, you might say that scoring goals contributes more to winning hockey games than pretty much anything else. Of all the tangible hockey skills, the measurable, definable, quantifiable things that contribute to winning, scoring is the most important, the rarest, and the most expensive. Guys who can smile in the locker room and be first on the ice in practice are a dime a dozen- or would be, if there wasn’t a League-mandated minimum salary. Guys who can put up 20+ goals and 50+ points a season? They’re five million per, and for good reason.

So anytime a person insists that they’d rather have a Cam Janssen on their team than an Alex Semin because the former ‘is the kind of guy you need to win’, that is a person who does not understand how winning works. It’s one thing to balk at the term Semin demands, if it is vastly long, or the salary he wants, if it is insanely high. I wouldn’t blame any GM for preferring to be conservative during the UFA season. But those fans and analysts who say they would not have Semin on their team at any price are being ridiculous. There is no team in the League that would not benefit from Alex Semin at the right price.

There is nothing inherently wrong with valuing theatrics. What is wrong is overvaluing great actors of limited talent and undervaluing great talents of limited acting ability.

Comments (47)

  1. Love that last line. I guess I am sympathetic to Semin because I am much the same way. Never any good at faking it, always want to tell it like I see it. My husband wanted to run for political office (he IS good at faking it), I said I’d divorce him. Besides, I wouldn’t be a good political wife because I would tell the press to #$%* off. Thank you for expressing so well what I and others have thought in terms of the divide between valuing what actually wins games and what is perceived to win games.

  2. Love this! I’ve always felt that Semin is *painfully* shy. Add that to the language barrier and I think a lot of people misjudge him. Especially in contrast to Ovechkin who seems to share all of his emotions all the time.

    Semin certainly frustrates me at times but I still feel like the good outweighs the bad when it comes to him.

  3. Very good article. Since following this year’s free agency, Alex Semin has become of interest to me and a bit of a pet peave. I can’t remember a player getting as trashed as him. I could rant on and on about this but frankly I’m tired of doing so. It is suffice to say that the media, firstly the two morons on TSN, then other media and bloggers and fans alike have initiated and perpetuated an unwarranted character assassination that Alex Semin does not deserve. Instead of continuing to read and hear about the crap written and said about him and following along like idiotic non-free thinking sheep, people should develop their own opinions of him based on facts not the biases of others. What has been perpetuated and regurgitated about Alex Semin has severly impacted on his career. Again, he doesn’t deserve any of it.

  4. I’m just tired of watching him shoot and circle away…..shoot and circle away…..you will never see him score a goal the way Knuble scores almost ALL of his goals…..with hard work and a harder effort. I think you CAN see *trying*.

    • I’m tired of seeing people dog Semin for making his goals look easy. Love Knuble, but Semin doesn’t need to score like Knuble does, he’s got too soft hands to score like that. Please, don’t look for reasons to pin against Semin, he’s an incredible talent.

      • Courtney, I agree with you in that Alex Semin has the skillful ability that translates into grace. His smooth skating, elequent stick handling and laser guided shot do make it look easy and perhaps sometimes appears like he is not trying. IMO, that IS natural talent that can’t be taught. Jim Rutherford when speaking at the press conference regarding A.S. impressed me. One of the answers to a question about his reputation that he has been forced to be burdened by was that sometimes it’s the player and sometimes it’s the combination of players and circumstances and sometimes a players begins to back away(or something like that). I believe he knows well what he’s talking about, about A.S.. And, IMO that’s exactly what happened in Washington. Ovechkin and the Cap organization were primarily his problem if one looks at all that transpired and the way he was used. He was set up to be the scape goat.Why? I’m not entirely sure but I have my opinions. Anyway, Semin clearly needs a fresh start, one that should have been begun a couple of years ago. Maybe he thought he could ride it out. Maybe he has a crappy agent. I don’t know. But it’s on to the Canes now where I believe he is going to flourish and provide the fans with great hockey entertainment.

    • This is a bit like when Gauthier traded Cammalleri for Bourque because the latter could ‘score from the hard areas of the ice’. Goals do not count double because they’re obtained in a manner one feels is morally superior.

      • “This is a bit like when Gauthier traded Cammalleri for Bourque because the latter (sic) could ‘score from the hard areas of the ice’.”

        I’m gathering you mean “the former,” since Gauthier was the GM of the Habs.

        You’re correct that goals do not count double when they’re obtained from the hard areas of the ice. At the same time, however, you’re completely missing the point.

        In the playoffs (last year’s Philly – Pittsburgh series notwithstanding), cheap goals scored from the perimeter tend to be few and far between. Goals whose distance traveled is measured in inches rather than feet tend to be the norm. There are a variety of reasons for this (improved goaltending, tighter systems play, greater emphasis on shot-blocking, etc.), but the effect is certainly real.

        Given two players who score a roughly equal number of regular-season goals, but one scores his goals on 45-foot wrist shots, and the other scores his on deflections and goal-mouth scrambles, I’d take the latter over the former (holding all else – such as defensive ability – equal). Those 45-foot wrist shots tend to disappear in the playoffs in a way that deflections and goal-mouth scrambles do not. The 45-foot wrister to the top shelf might be gorgeous to look at, but they happen very, very infrequently after April.

        Not coincidentally, Alex Semin’s goal production in the second round of the playoffs is one goal in eighteen games. His production in series in which the Caps were eliminated was the same number (one) in twenty-five games. When the going gets tough, Alex Semin disappears. If I were a GM, I’d be very reticent to sign Semin because of this.

        Moreover, given that Semin has played almost his entire career in the shadow of Ovechkin, Semin has frequently had the benefit of playing against an opponent’s second defensive pairing. On almost any other team, Semin would be the number one winger and would therefore draw the top defensive pairing and/or shutdown defensive line. Given his demonstrated tendency toward perimeter play, this could further depress his production.

        One does not need to resort to pop-psychology to explain Alex Semin and his current lack of a contract. There have been plenty of abrasive personalities in hockey who have been paid enormous amounts of money. Alex Semin doesn’t have a contract because he wants a first-line winger contract and many GMs – despite his obvious talent – don’t see him as a first-line winger.

        • No, I mean exactly what I said: Gauthier traded Cammalleri to the Flames for Bourque and justified it by saying that the latter (i.e. Bourque) was better because could score from ‘the hard areas’, even though he scored less.

          And as to the playoffs, they’re governed by randomness- which is to say, plenty of great players disappear and plenty of weak players hit a hot streak, not due to flaws in their game but simply due to small sample sizes.

          Personally, I never denied that Semin is probably most effective when given easier zonestarts and/or opposition, but that doesn’t make him somehow a useless player. Not every team plays power vs. power, and some teams- VAN for example- manage to get a ton of offensive production by ‘sheltering’ their best forwards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with tailoring the minutes to make a player as effective as possible, and when a player with tailored minutes can be as effective as Semin can be, it’s actually the smart thing to do.

          So no, maybe Semin can’t go power vs. power and kill, but the number of guys in the NHL who can is maybe 50, and they get $7-8-9 million. Like I said, if Semin is actually demanding that much (which we don’t know), I understand why a GM wouldn’t pay. But if he wants $5-ish million per year, honey, that IS second line scoring winger money. It’s a fair rate for goals.

          • “But if he wants $5-ish million per year, honey, that IS second line scoring winger money. It’s a fair rate for goals.”

            If Semin were willing to settle for $5m, I would wager that he’d be signed right now. That represents a $1.7m reduction in salary. Perhaps if Semin were offered a five-year term, that salary would be more attractive, but GMs aren’t lining up to sign him to a five-year contract.

            Also, the “power vs. power” example isn’t really relevant. This isn’t about who Semin has to defend against, so much as it’s about who defends against him. The Boston and NYR series this post-season were instructive. Hunter intentionally split up Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and paired Backstrom with Semin. The purpose was to force Julien and Tortorella to choose between matching Chara/Seidenberg and Girardi/Staal/McDonagh against Ovechkin or Backstrom and Semin. Both Julien and Tortorella chose to match against Ovechkin.

            Interestingly, despite playing with the Caps’ best center and being matched against inferior defensemen, Semin failed to produce (three goals and one assist in fourteen games), while Ovechkin led the team in points.

        • @ D’ohboy. It’s you who is missing the point. The author isn’t the one resorting to pop psychology. She is saying that Semin’s on-ice production doesn’t warrant the public bashing of him in the media, which ironically, is where the pop-psych usually comes in.

          If you had confined your response to a discussion of Semin’s production, you would have come across better. Although I wonder why you focus on only the second round of the playoffs, implying that Semin’s production is good in the first round. What does that tell you? Do you think that teams try harder or play tighter defense in the second round than in the first? That seems like a dubious premise. Or is there maybe more to it than that? Was Semin injured in one or more of those second round series? If his boxcars were down in a small sample size of second round games, how were his underlying possession stats? Is he the victim of bad luck?

          Again, there can be meaningful debate about Semin’s true value based on his production. But when the debate is colored by pop-psych-tinged vitriol, and xenophoboic dogwhistles like “effort” and “enigma,” it goes off the rails.

          • Did I – anywhere – use “pop-psych-tinged vitriol” or “xenophobic dog whistles?”

            Nope.

            Alex Semin wants to get paid like a number one wing, but he’s a guy who hasn’t broken 55 points in two years, he has never played a full season, and he’s disappeared when the Caps needed him in three consecutive playoffs.

            And the reasons the second-round/elimination statistic is relevant are: A) competition tends to increase in quality the further a team goes in the playoffs, and B) the elimination series are – by definition – when the team faced its most pressing need for Semin’s services.

            The injury argument is interesting. You can make the excuse that every time Semin underperforms, he must be injured. I can counter with: Semin is perpetually injured, particularly in the playoffs. Either way, the result is the same: the Caps spent almost $7m on an unreliable asset.

            Maybe Semin blows up statistically if he’s given top-line winger minutes. Having watching him play firsthand for the last six years, I can say it’s more likely that his production (not to mention games played) declines as he’s given more attention by the opposition’s top defenders.

            I’ve seen and parsed every single fancy statistic there is which claims to explain how wonderful Alex Semin is. I’ve marveled at his immense talent. As a Caps season ticket holder, he’s often worth the price of admission. At the same time, I long ago came to the conclusion that he was a wasted asset on the Caps, since Ovechkin takes up the #1LW slot, and he’s not worth the dollars and term that he and his agent think his boxcar stats merit. Unsurprisingly, most general managers in the NHL have come to the same conclusion.

            But of course, they’ve only done this because of the mean things said by Marc Crawford and Pierre McGuire. This is all a big misunderstanding because Semin doesn’t want to “pretend to care.”

        • Time to step back from the ledge, D’ohboy. He is no longer a Capital. No longer your concern. You don’t like him and never have so why did you waste your time reading this article about him? Want to talk perimeter play? Most of his shots against the Rangers were not from 40 feet out as you suggest. A good quantity were from 20 feet or less. You continue to bash him no matter what. I suggest that you not read anything about him. You will probably be much happier then.

      • D’ohboy- I’d give more credit to your argument if you had some evidence other than ‘the second round of the playoffs’. The Caps just haven’t made enough conference semifinal appearances with Semin on the roster for me to consider it even a speculatively representative sample size. Virtually no player gets good results in the playoffs consistently, except for the very upper peak of the elite. Consider: in the 2010-11 postseason, Alex Semin, who you are characterizing as a hopeless choker, got 6 points in 9 games, while the super-clutch playoff hero Daniel Briere got 9 points in 11 games- not a very big difference at all. Does that mean Briere isn’t as good as people think? Or Semin is better than he’s given credit for? Or does it just mean that the postseason is an unreliable measure of player talent? (You know where I stand, obviously).

        As to why GMs haven’t paid him, it could well be that he’s demanding too much, or it could be that they’re still waiting to see where the other dominoes fall, or it could be irrationality. I don’t know. Neither do you.

        • Further to the “Semin disappears in the playoffs” nonsense, his career playoff scoring rate is only 3 points/82 games less than Zach Parise.

          • Roke, that is very true but you will never convince those that continue to bash A.S. with facts. Open mindedness requires one to drop or at least honestly consider their own biases which rarely happens. Those are entrenched. I am not a fan of any player nationality or even any team per say. I am a fan of talented, skillful hockey. People should keep in mind that no player is perfect and that there are alot of things that can effect their game play. While alot of people will never admit it, if Semin was a good old North American kid with his skill who was also a gritty hitter and fighter ( as opposed to a slapper- doesn’t know how to fight – so what?), not a Russian, he would have been easily signed to a contract comparable to Parise. You saying that the bad reputation that he is forced to haul around is nonsense is an understatement.

  5. Hockey is full of people copying each other. If something works then everyone must try it – if blocking shots and strong forwards back on D rule the day then they all try it.

    If one good team that has a knack for evaluating talent shuns a particular player they all do. Then the bozos in the media that never used to have an opinion on Semin will all be bashing him acting as if they really have a clue.

    If Semin were a free agent last summer or the one b4 when his team was first in the conference then everyone would boast about how he couldn’t be overlooked. But his team had a offensively down year and now he is a cancer.

    Copy that?

  6. Where there is smoke there is usually fire. Semin and Parise have had very similar productivity, yet one had suitors lined up willing to throw crazy money at him and the other is still without a job. Why, in such a weak ufa pool and with numerous teams in need of his type of skill, is Semin still unsigned? Even if he is asking for too much money there should be a handfull of GMs willing to overpay for that type of talent. language barrier my ass. Ovie learned english. Why couldn’t Semin? Again, where there’s smoke there’s fire.

    • Sasha #1 speaks perfect English.

      For whatever reason he pretends not to when dealing with the press. Can’t say I blame him.

    • oldskool, That is your opinion and of course you are certainly entitled to it. IMO, if you have put much time into seriously looking into Alex Semin’s situation it would be almost impossible to arrive at the conclusion that the language barrier is the only issue confronting him. Although that and the implications that go along with it are very much a large part of the issue if in fact he can’t speak English well. Now, I don’t know for sure but have talked to people in Washington that claim to be in the know about this and they claim that he does speak English. When you really think about it, how could he not? Apparently he simply doesn’t care to involve himself with the media and I can’t say I blame him for that. There are many issues involved. To me, I have to ask. From where and/or who did you catch a whiff of that smoke?

  7. I agree with much of what you’ve said here but, you did show Alex winning a Puck battle against John (waiver wire – 4th line) Mitchell:)
    Just sayn

    Ps love your work

    • She tried to find one of him winning one versus Cam Janssen, but couldn’t find a picture of Janssen within 30 feet of the puck.

    • Well, that’s kind of the juxtaposition I wanted to draw: people make space on rosters for fourth-liners of questionable talent and who perform in the expected way, but not for first/second-liners of great talent who have ‘character questions’.

  8. Articles such as this one are the result of 150 years of teaching pseudo-science to psychologists in higher education.

    Alex Semin’s lack of productivity in the playoffs is not down to his feelings or his trepidation in sharing them or his failings as an actor. It’s down to the fact that he doesn’t like getting hit and once he is hit he goes to his special place where he is unable to help his teammates.

    Maybe his mom and dad didn’t encourage him enough when he was young or maybe he didn’t get an 8th place trophy in little league, hurting his self esteem – drag out trope you want from the over analyzed/everyone is gifted or learning disabled modern society – it is all BS.

    Alex Semin’s FA value has fallen to it’s current level because everyone can see that he is as soft as 500 thread count cotton sheets – in other words, it is his problem, not the coaches or GMs you are trying to make it out to be. Typical modern liberal response to a situation is to blame the game rather than the player – he will be fine in the KHL on the long term contract he seeks where the ice is too big to hit someone.

  9. While I agree mostly with your psycho-babble, the ‘intangibles’ you obfuscate have real value. How much of Parise’s $98M is for his goal scoring and how much is for knowing that every time he is on the ice, he will be going ‘balls to the wall’ on the forecheck. How much is for believing Parise accepts the “I’m the man who will lift the team on my back and carry it” mantle?

    I’m hearing Semin’s asking price is $7.0 Million per for minimum 4 years.

    Aside from it’s necessity to win games, having a talent for scoring goals is not as highly valued as the intangibles.

  10. Ellen; almost always love your pieces. And I mean, LOVE them. This one, however, stunk. Stink, stank, stunk.

    You say people can’t see “trying.” Maybe not. But what they can see is the process and the results of someone trying very hard at physical task. And this is so because when pushing to one’s extreme, control over facial expressions and such breathing patterns and such is weakened. e.g. If an Olympic runner comes round the last bend, and their pace doesn’t pick up, and their face and motions aren’t those of someone pressing the organism to the max, and they hit the finish line and can carry on a normal conversation, then sorry, they’re not “trying.” It’s not about them “putting on” some expression or other, it’s about the physical state the organism is in – and jogging is different than going all in.

    So, point 1, YES, people can see the process and effects of trying, when pushed to a physical extreme.

    Now, you’ve tried to smudge this all up with nonsense about fighting and practice, and by labelling any player who does as indulging in “theatrics,” (nice debating move, that.) But there are lots of actual, in-game situations where effort is noticed by team-mates. If you like, you can see a star player back-checking with their tongue hanging out, chasing the play. Team-mates, and fans, notice. It matters to the game, and when you do it to a state of exhaustion, people know. Or it’s a smaller player who goes in hard after a rebound, knowing full well they’re likely to get a stick in the teeth or across the back. And you know how hard this action is to identify? It’s as hard as watching whether a player turns toward the net, or away. Toward, or away. Maybe we can’t see the “trying,” but in cases like these, we can see whether or not the ONLY expressed behaviour that fits “trying” is taken on or not.

    So, point 2, it’s not to do with expressing “feelings,” or theatrical flair, it’s about getting the done, or not. And the thing is, some players won’t do them, for WHATEVER their own reasons are. They may dislike the parts of the game where their higher skill levels actually have to be set aside and pure effort put in. They may just not much like… pain. It’s real. Players shy away.

    I’m sure you know damn well when you’re in a family situation or relationship or office setting when someone is being a slack bastard. And while you may go easy on them for a while if other things are happening in life, you’re unlikely to go so easy if they happen to be quite gifted and well-off, but still insist on avoiding any heavy lifting. Life, meet hockey.

    Third, “intangibles” are not all about stupid actions, and I’m beginning to get irritated at smart people reducing them to Don Cherry’s level. It boggles me that in the battle between intelligence and advanced stats Vs. the idiot Cherry neanderthal wing, the intelligent side decided that they were not only going to downplay the importance of intangibles… but were going to move on to denying they can be identified… and in some cases, even deny they EXIST.

    It’s a lousy argument, Ellen – and in no way necessary. We take into account people’s effort, grit, leadership qualities, ability to share, selfishness – all sorts of things you can label “intangible” – and we do it in pretty much every sector of life. We do it in politics, in families and relationships, in art.

    Finally, as for the NHL being 30 teams all run by idiots like Don Cherry, teams have broken from the pack to sign Swedes, Russians, Americans and players of other exotic nationalities. They’ve signed 1,001 guys who were labelled as soft. If Semin has talent, I’m just not sure teams like Detroit and others are gonna walk on by for no reason.

    So what’s wrong with us saying, it appears very clear that he HAs talent, but it also appears he may not do certain other things that teams value. And that teams may just need to win. Because “trying” – like being a “good team-mate” – is a real thing, and impacts the other players on the team. To win, there needs to be enormous amounts of skill, but also an ability to sacrifice the self a bit, to take some pain, to put in as much effort as you can. And to have this view does NOT means people value Cam bloody Janssen over Semin.

    Anyhow, love your stuff. Just this one not so much. Cheers.

    • I think her point, ultimately, was that people are putting far too much value on perceived effort (real or acting), and far too little on actual results.

      Alex Semin is a fantastic hockey player who can score goals and contribute offensively. No one wants him because it appears he doesn’t go 100% all the time.

      I can understand how watching that can be frustrating because you sit there and think if he can do that while going %, what could he do going full out. The problem with that line of thinking is that it makes you ignore the results he does get.

      It’s the same criticism that Dustin Penner has gotten. He’s an effective hockey player, but because of what he doesn’t do, he’s gotten a reputation.

      Meanwhile the league is littered with lousy hockey players who keep finding NHL jobs based on the fact that they are grinders or good in the room.

      • I get it. And would be more than happy to see more of the goon squad replaced by higher end talent. It’s just the question isn’t whether or not Semin doesn’t always go all out or not. If he had random moments of not going all out, then those would be more than covered off by his moments of brilliance, right?

        Thing is, people feel that he’s not coming through when he’s most needed, when it’s hardest. Everybody understands that in a 100 game season, players aren’t always on. Even the goons don’t always show up. But in order to win, he has to be there when it’s important. And rightly or wrongly, he’s gotten the reputation of not being there at those times. Which – if true – may be a good reason not to sign him. If it’s not true, then 30 GM’s are idiots.

        I don’t know the answer, but I do know that there CAN be some value in critiques around issues such as trying and intangibles. I just don’t know if they apply to Semin or not.

        • To Not Norm Ullman: Mostly in regards to your later post. Yes hockey culture and the N.H.L. is full of bullshit. And, Alex Semin may very well be a dink. I don’t know but I don’t think so and based on what I have heard, read, etc. along with my own thinking and hockey experiences in my life will never take the so-called expert pundits such as Crawford and McGuirre’s opinions seriously. Nor will I follow along with the sheep who listen to that crap and perpetuate it. Like yourself I have used stats alot in my career. However, as an Archaeologist, and seemily unlike you, I feel that I have been FORCED to use them out of nessessity rather than my faith in them. I’m sure that you understand that statistics whether one has a large sample or small, can be manipulated to prove or disprove whatever hypothesis you have. I have little faith in statistics as I find that they can be very misleading. I enjoy to watch Alex Semin play hockey although he doesn’t fit the typical N.H.L. fan’s idea of an all around player. That’s my opinion and, IMO is a problem that I see as the league continues to deteriorate. Any type of analysis of A.S. as far as i’m concerned is valid and should be taken as such. To each their own. If we all have respect for eachother’s opinions we may all develop a better understanding of Semin’s play and perhaps even better insight into him as a person.

    • Not Norm said exactly what I feel…..Thanks!

    • Maybe you remember the post I did on ‘hustle’? No? Short version: the kind of physical expressions of effort you talk about are certainly real, but they’re not necessarily always the best hockey. A player who is a bad skater looks like he’s trying twice as hard to get around as a smooth, fluid skater, because he is, but that isn’t an expression of him caring more, it’s an expression of him being worse. A player who dumps the puck in and chases it really hard and battles along the boards looks like he’s working his ass off, and he is, but it’s still worse hockey than the guy who can carry it in, find a hairline gap in the defense, and get a quick wrister on net. Yet fans often zero in on the guy who dumps the puck, the guy who moves his legs really fast, as the guy whose more worth having, and he’s not necessarily. And you know what? The guy who makes it look effortless, he tried just as hard. He spent years honing that wrister. He spend ages practicing hitting lanes. You’re tired of people questioning intangibles? I’m tired of people acting like skill players don’t work just because the way they need to play to be effective involves less banging on the boards.

      You’re right, we do judge people by intangibles in the rest of life, and I question that too. In family or romantic relationships, where an emotional bond is the core of how you know a person, and you know them very, very, very well, then yes, judging on intangibles is fine, because A) the whole relationship is about intangibles, and B) you’ve been close enough to the person for long enough to know what qualities they have more accurately. But in work? In politics? In art? No, we shouldn’t judge on (our perception of) intangibles, we should judge on ability and results. And in art, actually, we don’t judge by intangibles nearly as much. We don’t fill our museums with paintings by super-nice guys who painted a lot more than everyone else, we fill them with objects of remarkable concept and execution. Personally, I think hockey should be more like that.

      I won’t presume to speak for why you feel the way you do, but I get the sensibility behind it. I’ve felt similar things myself when I feel like someone is sucking some colorful thing I love out of the game. I don’t know if this helps, but for the record: my problem with intangibles is epistemological, not metaphysical. I don’t doubt that these things exist. What I do doubt is A) whether or not we can identify them correctly, and B) whether we understand how they work well enough to put an accurate value on them. Right now, sports media’s discussion of intangibles is full of a lot of bullshit: they’re used like a deus ex machina to explain anything and everything (as in ‘The Rangers won because they wanted it more’), they’re wildly overvalued (as in: ‘I wouldn’t have Semin on my team at any price’), and our attribution of them is based only on the tiny slices of the players we see filtered through television (as in: ‘Cam’s such a great guy, he’s always first on the ice at practice’) (All of those are things I’ve actually seen said). There IS a place for an intelligent, thoughtful, careful discussion of character, personality, etc, in sports, but I think it needs to start by breaking down all the lazy, careless, cheap narratives that exist now around these things. Intangibles NEED to be viewed skeptically for a while before, maybe, they can be taken on faith again. Or, at least, that’s I have to do before I can believe in them again, and my work will reflect that.

      Thanks for commenting, though. I really appreciate how much you care about this topic. If you don’t give up on me out of irritation, we have a lot of good debates in our future.

      • I get the kind of attitude you’re fighting – Cherry, Milbury et al. I just think it’s counterproductive to agree to divide the world in two, but in the process hand over things of value to the other side. It’s bad politics, bad persuasion. I’m not willing to hand over intangibles, grit, leadership or character in a trade off for Corsi. Or even Corsi Close. A bit like how the Left handed over “freedom” to the Right. Bad move.

        e.g. I argued that sometimes you can link up physical expressions with a level of effort. You argued that the two aren’t necessarily the same. True enough. But where you then head is to effectively say they aren’t ever the same, and can’t ever be connected. And that fails, as an argument.

        I’ve spent a lot of time around people who do things world-class well, including athletes. And even a Gretzky, or a beautiful-skater like Kessel, will – late in the 3rd, chasing the play, back-checking – look exhausted. It’s a very specific situation I’m talking about here, and much more useful in “reading” a player than is “being the first on the ice at practice.” And that is simply because, if a human being is actually putting in all they have, they will look tired — they will gasp for breath. To imagine that Semin could somehow compete at an NHL level, in every game and every situation, against the world’s best, and never gasp for air is magical thinking.

        So what I prefer is less to argue the grand generics of Analytics/Statistics versus Anecdotes/Appearances, but to argue that our methods can help guide the fan away from the superficial and the misleading, and take you down to where you can see the REAL player, and the real game.

        So, f’rinstance, if Semin is actually better on defence than people think, or better in the clutch, we can back that with statistics, for starters. But we can also then come up with a better explanation of how he achieves that – one that can guide us to better observations, appearances, moments during a game. So it’s not a case of our magic stats that can’t be seen going directly against what we see…. but rather, use of our stats, plus some intelligence, lets us pick out a shift an show how Semin actually was great defensively because…. he kept the puck in the other team’s end… or posed such a threat that they had to hang back and play deeper… or how he kept himself between the puck and the man so no pass could come through.

        Again, if we want to show him “working” or putting in an effort, we should look for those moments when he’s applying his talent to a tough situation, one perhaps not of his making, but mobilizing all his energy to resolve it – catching a man on a backcheck, or whatever.

        This sort of stuff was eventually SEEN in players like Lemieux, or Frank Mahovolich, Coffey, or many others over the years. We may first figure this stuff out through stats, but we should then be able to explain it, and identify it, show it to people.

        A 2nd thing is, there just plain ARE players who are lazy sods or selfish bastards. And yes, it hurts a team. And yes, sometimes they’re Russian. And we need to be careful automatically backing someone – in the same way as we don’t want to automatically attack them for being foreign of somesuch. e.g. Maggie Thatcher was a woman, and was also an absolute monster – and it was important to be able to say so, at that moment. Semin – while of slightly less import – may well be a dink. I don’t know.

        3rd, you prefer ability/results over intangibles, and point to the art world to back that. Hmmmmm. No, we don’t fill our museums and galleries with work by the super-nice. But. The art world has found more than a few other ways to pose, preen, network, ass-kiss, etc.

        Finally, I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of people breaking down the lazy and the stupid. Hint: there’s far more lazy and stupid out there than you can ever take down. Suggestion: put together your best thoughts, marry up analysis with with you feel, and raise the whole goddamn level of discussion. It’s what you do best anyway. Really. Besides, who wants to spend another minute of their life critiquing Milbury or somesuch twerp – and having to fight it as his way versus yours (where he gets grit, leadership, intangibles, self-sacrifice, teamwork, and character as “his” way)?

        Take ALL the virtues. ;-)

        • I’m not just fighting Cherry and Milbury. I’m fighting a systemic problem in hockey discourse where people overvalue personal qualities that they can’t see over the skills that they can. The kind of breakdown you suggest, which as far as I can tell is ‘look at player’s faces shift to shift’ isn’t productive, firstly because there is no player anywhere in the NHL who is so lazy that you can’t find cases of him being out of breath and tired-looking, and secondly because, again, players whose game relies on hustle and banging will have far more shifts of obvious exhaustion then players whose game relies on finesse. The fundamental problem here is that people overvalue effort and undervalue skill, and your method is more or less designed to confirm that rather than challenging it.

          And if we look at Semin shift by shift, we’ll find times he does good things and times he does bad things and the only way of aggregating whether he does one more than the other will be counting, i.e. stats, i.e. exactly the argument that the fancystats guys have been making in defense of him all along.

          I said, in the piece, that often the performance of emotions does line up with real emotions, but we have to recognize that it doesn’t always, and therefore harshly judging a person’s character based on the slivers of behavior we can see is unethical. Where knowledge is imperfect, I prefer to err on the side of thinking the best (or at least the better) of people. Most of the ‘evidence’ against Semin is hyperbolic gossip, and I’m not willing to credit hyperbolic gossip just because… it exists? Because ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire”? Bullshit. Hockey is an extremely strident culture, and I’ve known enough strident cultures to know that they are quite capable of judging and ostracising people for foolish reasons.

          And finally, I am nowhere NEAR done making all the points I want to make about intangibles, so don’t think I’ve just ceded this ground to the Milburys of the world. Unfortunately, I work now in a medium where ideas need to be communicated in 2000 word bites at regular intervals. I don’t have the luxury of spending a year putting together a monograph that contains everything I think about intangibles in hockey.

          There’s a lot more coming on this topic, and ultimately it doesn’t land in the simplistic ‘Corsi is great and grit isn’t real’ place you imagine it will.

          • It’s not all/nothing. If someone says “Semin is lazy, doesn’t show effort, won’t play defence,” then showing examples of him backchecking etc. is a potentially useful counter. Maybe it persuades, maybe it doesn’t. Same as showing them stats – maybe it works, maybe not. What I’m saying is…. I think both/and is better.

            As for stats, I live and breathe a world of stats. And any “fancystats” guys who thinks they’ll win the Semin debate by answering, “the only way of aggregating whether he does one more than the other will be counting, i.e. stats” – well…. they’ll be wrong. And I’m saying that as someone who lives inside stats. Because aggregates and averages are only one way to measure and evaluate reality. There are questions of whether he does it when the games are close, and are at key points in the season or playoffs, and then, whether he does it against certain players or in certain types of conditions.

            And when the fancy stats guys follow this discussion along – and they do – it becomes clear that they’re being forced, by the nature of reality, to dig into that same narrow vein that the grit/intangibles/character guys are aiming for. And that after a while, small sample size can just as easily be written up as “anecdote.” After all, when it boils down, the game, the season, the career, often really does turn on performances in very narrow moments and slices.

            What I’m arguing for is that we should go for discussing those moments – the ones that count most – both using traditional values language as well as stats-talk. I’m not sure that’s so harsh.

            As for gossip and hyperbole, yup, they exist, and hockey culture is full of bullshit. However, it may also very well be the case that Semin is a total asshole. I keep saying that I don’t know. What I find just as interesting as the Cherry types who knee-jerk reject Semin are the fancystats types who completely discount the idea that he might actually be lousy as a team-mate and do poorly in tough situations, and thus, that Team X should absolutely sign this guy. This seems to me to be a really poor decision-making model as well.

            Final point. Stats world is a culture as well. I know it, and have worked in it, through multiple universities, countries, governments and projects, for 30+ years now. And oddly enough, it has its own weaknesses, and peculiar cultural tendencies, and even its own… strident people and practices.

            Anyway. Thanks for the chat, and I absolutely look forward to more of your work, in long or short form.

            Let ‘er rip!

          • But stats HAVE investigated what players do when the games are close (Fenwick %s are usually broken down this way), at certain key points in the season or playoffs (research on clutchery), and whether they do it against certain players or in certain circumstances (qualcomp, zonestarts, home/away breakdowns). Now, the work is still ongoing and many of the conclusions are still provisional, but these things can be investigated through data, and the attempt to do so often reveals far more than the cliches. Now, you think we should look at things in both ways, and I agree. But I also think both ways of looking at things should be interrogated and criticized.

            As to the importance of small slices of the game, I know that well, and I’ve written on it considerably. But when you’re talking about player value and character, you’re talking about things that should be far more than moments. They should be enduring. They should be sustainable, and therefore statistical research should be a highly relevant part of the conversation.

            And yeah, I know statsfolk can be dicks too. But right now they’re making the most coherent, thoughtful arguments in hockey discourse, and I want to engage with the direction of their work more than with anything else I know of anyone doing in the field.

  11. I think Semin has been getting a bit of a bum rap also. I watch a lot of Caps games, and he actually seems to be hustling on the backcheck and especially fighting for the puck quite a bit.

    I can only hope the Caps resign him cheap.

    • Come on now Real Norm. Yeah, he is getting a bum rap but certainly more than a bit. Yup, he is playing VERY well. I agree. Always has actually. But by saying that you hope he resigns cheap is quite unfair to him I think. He deserves whatever he can get. And, for his sake he needed to get out of Washington and embark on a fresh start. His career depended on it.

  12. Obviously pages could be written about A.S. anaylizing his play from many angles via different analitical strategies. Depending on whatever your method may be most types of player analysis is valid and should be taken as such by the reader. Most of us have our own ways of seeing things and our opinions are as good as the next. Where I draw the line is regarding personal attacks. If you agree with someone’s point fine, if you don’t that’s fine too. If interested enough to be reading at all then IMO do so with the intent to learn or challenge your ways of seeing. Case in point. Dawgbone asked a question regarding Parise’s productivity in the playoffs. Perfectly valid question adding something to this discussion. Matthew James called him a rambling lunatic, adding zero to this discussion. This was my primary point in my earlier post and yes, I did cast some names of my own however, calling Alex Semin a loser, he has no character, a coach killer, etc. is totally ridiculous. This type of personal player analysis is useless. And, in regards to Alex Semin or anyone else completely uncalled for. It in no way whatsoever contributes to any clearer understanding of his play and is merely name calling that resulted in Crawford and McGuirre looking unprofessional.

  13. My only hope is that Ken Holland has evaluated how well Semin might fit in with the Wings and has spent considerable time with Pavel Datsyuk gathering his opinion on the subject. I don’t know what they know so time will have to reveal the results, but like all Wings fans, I know this team badly needs scoring.

  14. Doug, I agree. One would think that teams explore all avenues and employ all kinds of research and technologies, etc., in order to gather as much insight into a potential addition to their clubs. Furthermore they have played against eachother. You wouldn’t think that they would sign a player based on the opinions of commentators, etc. either. An example IMO is Hurricanes G.M. ( who is it again?), Jim Rutherford who said that they have heard the stories about Semin and therefore would only be interested in a 1 year deal for x amount of dollars. I call B.S. on that. Does he think people are that stupid especially Semin himself? Those G.M.’s make themselves look stupid. If they want Semin then make him an offer. If they don’t, then don’t. I suppose they conduct themselves that way for their fan base that have stated interest in a player. To me that’s insulting. I guess to the players that’s understood as the politics of hockey.

    • Since new info has come out now and the Canes have signed Semin it looks like I will have to retract the earlier things I said about Rutherford. It appears they did alot of research into A.S. as they should with any new addition to the team. I would assume that teams do this with any player not just A.S.. It does only make sense. Although they consult with players who know and have played with another player, that’s probably a relatively small part of the evaluation process they consider in the final analysis and decision.

  15. Semin is my favourite player in the league but even I admit to frustration with him. However non of that is relevant. The only thing that matters is price. If he wants 7 that’s too much. If he’ll take 5 I would hope the caps would sign him to a long term deal. The only thing that matters, as EE says in this completely awesome article btw, is production and results.

    Also, trying to cherry pick his playoffs (only looking at the 2nd round and not 1st for instance) is complete bs. The playoffs are an insanely small sample size to begin with. And you want to make it even smaller? Give me a break.

    I’d imagine that given he was at a 6yr low in shooting% this season, he will regress (upwards) to his mean and that he will score more next year and that whatever team signs him evenutally will look like geniuses. But it won’t be because he is TRYING harder or becasue that team has a BETTER room. It will be due simply to the law of averages. Far too many people in this game want to assign “character” and “ethic” to that which is simply…chance. It’s a human need to try and explain things. No one wants to believe how much in life is simply due to pure dumb luck. You can push the %’s in your favour of course, and one of the ways to do that in hockey is to have players of high skill on your team. One of the ways to not due it is to give two damns about idiotic concepts like “truculence”.

  16. Stats-world faces limits. Real ones, not just ones you can touch up or help toddle along by calling them provisional.

    * Sample sizes are often too small.
    * All data is theory-laden.
    * Not everything can be counted.

    These are – imho – just plain truths. Scientific truths. And stats-folk, when on an imperialistic run, can chant them back to you – but they don’t actually pay attention to them. I know, because I get to read them every day, and debate them.

    And thing is, I’ve watched this same damned nonsensical curve take place in politics. In economics. In music. In the environment. Always the same goddamn debates. The same battles. Yes, yes, “we’re the voice of liberation against the old guard, the old cliches.”

    And yet somehow we ended up with politicians who got devoured by their stats people – the pollsters. So that now, the public feels as though their leaders have lost all heart, all humanity.

    We now have economies ruled over by the stats heads – economists and the math kids in the banks and hedge funds – who search for an additional 0.1% profit over the next 3 months. Meanwhile the roots and sources of growth go wanting, and the fruits are distributed elsewhere.

    And we get endless debate – led by the consultants – on how to best shave 3% of pollutant X by using policy Y at cost Z. Meanwhile, the pipes and stacks simply thrust themselves up outside the official framework, and they belch all the more.

    So sure, it’s worth using stats to batter down the old cliches. But maybe before the smarter rats with their fancy stats take complete charge of the game (and oh, just wait, the uniforms will be broken down and segmented and sold to the highest bidder and the sharpest logos), it’s worthwhile to start checking up on whether their sample sample actually do tell us all that much about character in key games… or whether they truly understand how deeply their pre-conceptions and theories tilt the very data they gather… and maybe most important of all, whether they get that – at any point in history – there are whole aspects of reality which we can’t even count.

    I hang around these debates a bit. I watch this shit every day. Cherry and his mob are done for, history – as are Milbury et al.

    But the new, stats-fed breed? I’ve dialled back my enthusiasm a notch. They haven’t much sense of what they don’t know. They don’t get that there’s a lot of life which has deep, embedded knowledge, knowledge that could take decades to trick out. They like to argue against the idiots – as opposed to the old-style people of the game with real depth. And that could hurt us.

    So, yeah, the statistical revolution reaches hockey. Yawn. Wake me when we all feel dreadfully let down, and discover we’ve lost something oh-so-important to the game.

    • In my experience, I’d say some stats people get those things and others don’t. The field, at least in hockey- no idea about what you do- is far from homogenous, although they sometimes put up a united front behind certain points. I’ve had plenty of conversations with stats people where they question each other’s work and challenge each other’s dogmas and admit mistakes. Yeah, there are some ideologues and bean-counters in there, but… well, there are some of those everywhere. The emotional, philosophical, and historical ideals you appeal to are no less vulnerable to corruption, misunderstanding, and misuse. And while other methods of hockey analysis and narrative and discussion have allowed themselves to stagnate to the point of cliche over time, the stats guys are still looking for new ideas and perspectives. That in itself is valuable. Does hockey need some respect for tradition? Of course. But it’s always been a mercurial game. It changes constantly, and having some people in it’s community who are pushing for change… that’s important. Necessary, even.

      And for me, personally, as far as key moments in key games- I recognize that there are elements there that can’t be counted, in the lived experience of a person facing a moment of trial, but I believe those are often quite singular things. I believe there are some guys with great character and great mental toughness who just aren’t good enough to be put in those positions often enough for us to see. I believe there are guys with great character who fuck up in their moment through overzealousness or overcaring. I believe there are guys of flawed character who are good enough to succeed anyway. In short, the link between character and success or failure in certain specific times is not necessarily simple and direct, and that’s not a stats-argument- it’s a human argument.

  17. IMO statistics are not science but can be considered to be classed as somewhat useless tools of scientific method. Agreed that preconceptions and theories, and I would add biases impact how stats are used. Therefore the results of the analysis can be presented and argued in any way one chooses. We drown in useless statistics when applied to the human condition and in the attempt to better understand character. I don’t see how the ranting opinions of the EXPERTS are history. Many-most of the average hockey fans gobble that stuff up (some say it’s entertainment designed for T.V. ratings. Perhaps to some but not most). The N.H.L. is archaic. Talent and skill are not primary. And, at the rate that it has gotten worse the fans will be witness to sever injury and perhaps death sadly. They will wonder why and excuses will be made not positive change. So, yes we must somehow fight the idiotic perceptions of what hockey is, pushed and condoned by those so called hockey gurus and perpetuated by those that listen and believe. I’m afraid that the Neanderthals are still alive and well and far from extinct in the N.H.L..

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