RALEIGH – Eric Staal heard the buzz. He heard that Alexander Semin, his new teammate, did not have the work ethic to match his immense skill. He heard the phrases 'coach killer' and 'enigmatic' applied to the 28-year-old. And he didn't know what to believe.
"I knew he had a ton of skill, obviously, I'd seen him for a lot of years in Washington and he scored a lot of goals against our team, but, a lot of stuff was said about him that, for me, I wasn't going to judge or be opinionated on it until I knew him and met him and got to play with him," the Carolina Hurricanes captain said.
And the early returns have been overwhelmingly positive.
"He has been nothing but great," said Staal. "He's been a great teammate for everyone in this room and the type of guy who competes in practice and in games and that's all you can ask for."
While the Jordan Staal trade with Pittsburgh created the most headlines during the off-season here it wasn't the biggest risk Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford took. Bringing in a Stanley Cup winner eager for a bigger role and a chance to play with his older brother was a no-brainer compared to signing a player known more for being a lightning rod of controversy than a proven performer.
But so far the one-year, $7 million deal handed Semin has paid off. He leads all Carolina forwards in playing time (21:03 per game) and is tied for second in the NHL with a plus-11 rating behind only Eric Staal (plus-12). And, after seeing his shots-per-game decline during the last two seasons (3.02 in 2010-11 and 2.38 in 2011-12), Semin is back to averaging 3.69 shots on target per outing.
"He's been very professional so far," said head coach Kirk Muller. "He's engaged, he's part of the group, it looks like he's having fun. He's bought into the things that we're trying to instill here with our team and the bonus is the results."
Semin has just three goals through 13 games in Carolina, but his greatest impact may be on Staal, his linemate.
"I think Eric is enjoying playing with an elite player, which Semin is," said Muller. "A lot of people think of him as a goalscorer, but he's actually a really big-time playmaker so I think Eric is really having fun so far having him on the right side."
Semin has picked up seven assists this season.
"We're developing chemistry every single night," said Staal, who is currently riding an 11-game point streak, the longest in the NHL this season. "He's got a ton of size and reach and strength along the wall and just that thinking level of an elite player and, for me, he's been a lot of fun to play with. He's really opened the ice up and hopefully we continue to get better and help our team win games."
Carolina's top line, which also includes Jiri Tlusty, was dominant combining for 24 points (10 goals) during the team's recent 4-1-1 road trip, which wrapped up on Tuesday with a win over the Eastern Conference-leading New Jersey Devils.
Staal picked up an assist in Thursday's victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Raleigh while Semin and Tlusty were held off the scoresheet.
Since losing its first two games, Carolina has won eight of 11 and surged to the top of the Southeast Division.
Staal, playing in his ninth NHL season, has been plagued by slow starts of late. Last season he had just five points in his first 16 games. Back in 2010-11 he picked up seven points in 11 games off the hop. In 2009-10 it was a modest five points in 13 games. And in 2008-09 it was nine points in the first 16 games of the campaign.
How much has Semin helped in getting Staal off to a quick start this year?
"It doesn't hurt," Staal said with a laugh. "It doesn't hurt at all. It's a guy you want to play with. He's an elite talent, a top player in the league and, you know, when you're playing with someone like that it's going to open up ice for yourself, he'll make little plays and will back off defencemen who have to be respectful of him so it definitely helped my game and hopefully we keep going in the right direction."