Varlamov shows he isn't expendable
For the longest time, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee was given kudos for being able to dump goaltender Semyon Varlamov, a promising youngster plagued by inconsistency and injuries, on the Colorado Avalanche for a first- and second-round draft pick.
The first-round pick turned out to be Filip Forsberg, taken with the 11th overall selection in the 2012 draft. Forsberg has since been dealt to Nashville for the lamentable Martin Erat. And for a long time, Varlamov was, well, Varlamov-like. He and the Avs drifted above and below the ordinary line with not much to suggest things would get any better anytime soon.
But in this still-early NHL season, things appear to be different.
No team has set the hockey world on its collective ear like the Avalanche, which boasts a sparkling 5-0 record heading into Tuesday's home date against Dallas. It will be the first home contest since the Avs opened with wins over Anaheim (yes, we recall the Bruce Boudreau-fest at the end of the 6-1 victory) and Nashville. The Avs followed that with three solid road wins.
Rookie head coach Patrick Roy acknowledged Monday he is curious to see how the fans respond to the team's early-season run.
There have been all kinds of positives for the previously moribund Avs, including the play of rookie and No. 1 overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon and a forward corps that includes Matt Duchene, Steve Downie and P.A. Parenteau. But the one constant from game to game has been the goals allowed: one. As in the Avs have yet to give up more than a single goal in any game this season.
Varlamov has been the goalie of record in four of those games and has stopped all but four of 132 shots directed his way, which converts to an other-worldly save percentage of .970.
"First of all, I think Varly deserves a lot of credit for his hard work and his commitment," Roy told ESPN.com Monday.
From the moment Roy took over as head coach and vice president of hockey operations in late May and the Avs hired Roy's old mentor Francois Allaire as goaltending coach, the two focused on helping Varlamov become something different, something better.
Allaire met with Varlamov before training camp in Switzerland where the two worked for about a week. Then Roy journeyed to Montreal and caught up with Allaire and Varlamov and veteran Avs backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The group continued their workouts there for a couple more weeks.
In Montreal, Roy suggested Varlamov change the positioning of his catching hand, moving it up higher in his stance to give shooters less of a target.
Unlike a shortstop or second baseman who keeps his glove lower and pointed to the ground, Roy believed Varlamov would be better-served by turning his catching glove the other way and raising it higher.
"He did it right off the bat," Roy said.
Allaire, who handles the bulk of the technical aspects of both goaltenders' games, has also worked with Varlamov to keep him more under control, more square to the shooters and more often between the posts -- and less outside where bad things can happen to goaltenders.
"He's been working really hard," Roy said of Varlamov.
A year ago, the Avs were 27th in goals allowed per game and Varlamov recorded an unimpressive 3.02 GAA. The Avs gave up 31.4 shots per game, 25th in the league.
Now, Varlamov (and Giguere in a limited role thus far) have been superlative, and the Avs' defense has been quick to clear pucks out of danger, thus making their goaltenders' jobs easier. The two netminders actually shared the league's "second star" of the week honors, the NHL announced Monday.
Roy can pick out the instances thus far where there have been breakdowns -- a couple against Washington, one against Boston -- but other than that he's needless to say pleased with his team's overall play.
"We're trying to pressure the guys so they have to shoot quickly," Roy said.
If there was an early statement game for Varlamov, it was the Avs' 5-1 victory in Washington.
So far, the Caps are 2-4-0 and their goaltending has been horrible.
Varlamov, meanwhile, stopped 40 of 41 Capitals shot in the victory.
It wasn't quite the same as the first time Roy returned to the Montreal Canadiens after being traded to Colorado back in 1995, but the coach said he knew there would be nerves when Varlamov stepped onto the Verizon Center ice.
"I don't know how important it was," Roy said of the win. "But I think he wanted to play a good game and he did."
One NHL executive who regularly scouts the Avs said he saw Varlamov early in the season and marked his play as "stellar" and went on to suggest perhaps he is benefiting from the change in dynamics with Roy, Allaire and Giguere coming in.
Maybe it's the technical advice. Maybe it's just a case of being in a place populated by people who are invested in Varlamov's success.
Former NHL netminder Kevin Weekes believes the support network in place for Varlamov has been key to the netminder's strong start. Weekes, now a national analyst, shared Varlamov's agent in North America, Paul Theofanous, and has known the 25-year-old since about the time the Caps drafted him 23rd overall in 2006.
"He's very smart; a very intellectual person," Weekes told ESPN.com Monday. "Obviously he's very coachable and willing to work and improve."
The former netminder praised Allaire's work not just for altering some technical aspects of Varlamov's game but for doing so without detracting from the goaltender's core athletic strengths.
Weekes said he's seen a lot more consistency from Varlamov as well as more strength in his play in the net, denying shooters short passes in close and wraparounds or backdoor plays.
"It's an amazing story," he said.
Roy has mapped out his goaltending rotation through most of October, and it will feature a lot of Varlamov.
"The focus on Varly was to get some consistency in his play," Roy said.
Perhaps, Roy mused, we're starting to see that.
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