Capitals sue prospect Alexander Semin

By David Rathbun

The hopes that Russian prospect Alexander Semin may return to the Washington Capitals line-up this season have gotten dimmer, as the team announced last week that they are suing Semin and his agent for breach of contract because the left winger is playing professional hockey in Russia instead of reporting to his NHL team.

Capitals General Manager, George McPhee, released the following statement:

“We have done everything we could to avoid this step, but we felt we had no choice but to now seek a legal remedy. This filing seeks to compel Alexander Semin’s agent, and the Russian hockey team Lada Togliatti, to return Alex to the Washington Capitals. We made a commitment to Alex when we signed him to a valid three-year contract in 2003, and he should not be playing hockey for another team. His new agent has told us that Alex is under a military obligation in Russia; however Alex is playing professional hockey. We look forward to the resolution of this process so that we can welcome Alex back to the Capitals this season.”

For several weeks now, Semin’s camp (represented by agent Mark Gandler who is also named in the suit) has insisted that Semin is currently serving his two-year Russian military obligation and cannot report to his NHL club.

Semin’s relationship with the Capitals was rocky almost from the very beginning. At times, he has proven very difficult to coach. He has been benched on occasion for failing to play into Washington’s defensive system, and he has also shown a reluctance to learn English.

Unfortunately for Washington, their problems with Semin did not stop there. He mysteriously missed the team’s flight for the final game of the 2003-04 NHL season against Pittsburgh, and failed to provide a valid excuse for his absence. At the beginning of the 2004-05 lockout ending season, Washington assigned Semin to their AHL farm club in Portland, Maine. Instead of reporting as requested, he claimed that he was stopped at the airport by Russian officials and was prevented from leaving Russia – citing that he was required to begin his two-year mandatory Russian military obligation. The Capitals did not believe his story, and promptly suspended Semin. To date, the Washington Capitals have yet to obtain any proof that Semin is currently serving in the Russian military, and in the meantime, Semin continues to play professional hockey for the Russian Super League (RSL) Team, Lada Togliatti.

Semin was drafted by Washington with the 13th overall pick in the 2002 NHL entry draft. He played 52 games with the Capitals during the 2003-04 campaign, registering 10 goals and 12 assists. At the end of the 2003-04 NHL season, Semin was assigned to Portland to give him some crucial playoff experience. He immediately flourished by tallying 7 goals and 4 assists in 11 postseason contests, and at times, clearly dominated the flow of the game.

During the 2004–05 lockout, Semin played for Lada Tagliotti of the RSL, posting 19 goals and 11 assists in 52 games with the Russian club. He also finished the season a respectable + 15, and did show further improvement as he played in a Russian Super League dominated by NHLers.

Semin is an incredibly gifted offensive talent. He has terrific speed, and he possesses remarkable puck control in high traffic areas and along the boards. He is also very slender for his 6’ frame, and will likely need to bulk up if he is going to be a success in the NHL. However, he does possess great offensive awareness for someone of his years, and the early indication is that he has the tools to one day become a perennial all-star if he reaches his potential.

The Capitals named Semin, Gandler, and Gandler’s agency (International Sports Advisors Company, Inc.) in the lawsuit. The complaint refers to Semin’s military obligation as a “sham,” and the Capitals are seeking an immediate injunction to prevent Semin from playing hockey for any other club in hopes that he can return to Washington this season. In addition, the Capitals are also seeking damages in the amount of $1000 for every day that has transpired since Semin failed to report to Washington’s AHL affiliate (Portland) at the beginning of the 2004-05 season. The Capitals are also arguing that they were forced to acquire forward Jeff Friesen as a replacement for Semin, and are seeking Friesen’s $2.28 million salary as damages as well.

The suit comes at a very precarious time because Semin’s Russian Super League team, Lada Togliatti, has run into recent financial difficulties and has announced that the team will dramatically slash its payroll. It is rumored that Semin, who is currently making close to $2 million, and has a condo and an automobile as part of his contract with Lada Toliatti, will be one of the first players to be cut in attempts to trim expenses.

Since Gandler and his agency are based in the US, the suit would have jurisdiction over Gandler because he operates out of New Jersey, and because he is a certified agent with the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA). It is uncertain at this point as to whether or not the suit will be able to force Semin’s return, but the possibility still remains that Semin could return to Washington by the end of the calendar year.

Should Semin return to Washington, the Capitals would be adding a dynamic talent alongside fellow Russian phenom, Alexander Ovechkin. The Capitals hoped that Ovechkin and Semin would represent the two major building blocks during the club’s rebuilding effort, but so far, the club has yet to get the two of them on the same sheet of ice together. The addition of Semin would also dramatically enhance Washington’s stagnant power play, and could also add another dimension of scoring to help bolster the club’s top two lines.

To date, Semin continues to play for Lada Togliotti until the November transfer period in which case Lada will either release him, or trade him to another RSL club. So far this season, Semin has registered only one goal and one assist in 10 games with Lada Togliatti.

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