Monday, September 28, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Goaltenders: Semyon Varlamov

Semyon Varlamov

Theme: “Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”

So, an Italian cleric – Angelo Roncalli – describes what this season might hold for a young Russian goaltender. When last we saw Semyon Varlamov in a game that mattered, he finally wilted under a withering assault at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, pulled from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals after 22 minutes, having allowed four goals on 18 shots. It was the fourth straight game in that series in which he allowed at least four goals.

Varlamov – as unexpected a choice to lead the Capitals forward in the playoffs as one could imagine – failed where many before him had… Olaf Kolzig, Jim Carey, Don Beaupre. All fell to the Penguins in the playoffs.

But Varlamov’s future looks brighter than any of his predecessors. And it’s not just the fact that Varlamov will – this year and in the immediate future – enjoy a better cast of skaters than any of his predecessors, but Varlamov seems that rare combination of athletic skill, having a capacity to improve, and possessing a calm confidence that will allow him to weather the intermittent failures as he makes progress toward taking over the number one goaltending spot and, Capitals Nation hopes, toward a Stanley Cup championship.

Hardly lost in last year’s unfortunate end was a run in which the youngster announced his presence with no small measure of authority:

- He won his NHL debut in one of the most difficult venues for visiting goaltenders, topping the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre, 2-1, stopping 32 of 33 shots one night after joining the club in mid-game after having been called off the road – literally – as the Hershey Bears were traveling between cities on a Texas road trip.

- He won his Verizon Center debut five days later, besting the St. Louis Blues 4-2 and stopping 29 of 31 shots with his father in attendance.

- He finished the regular season undefeated in regulation in six appearances (4-0-1), holding opponents to two goals or fewer in five of those appearances.

- He took the reins in goal for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal after the Caps dropped Game 1. He lost two of the next three, but stopped 75 of 78 shots, securing his win via shutout. Having given his teammates an opportunity to get their legs under them, he won the last three games of the series, giving up only four goals on 67 shots. For the series, he had a goals against average of 1.17, a save percentage of .952, and two shutouts in six games.

The kid can play…

Fearless: Even though there are no sure things among 21-year olds, you can’t think he’s a fluke. He was 19-7-1, 2.40, .908, and two shutouts at Hershey. In two seasons with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl he recorded six shutouts in 77 regular season games and another five in 22 playoff games over that span.

Cheerless: Uh-huh. Well here’s another goalie… 39-21-2, 3.05 in college; 30-14-11, 2.76 in the minors, 18-6-3, 2.13 as a rookie in the NHL, then a Vezina Trophy winner the next year. Three years later, he was out of hockey.

In the end:

Yes, we know the story of Jim Carey, and yes, his career pretty much cratered after he was shelled by the Penguins to the tune of a 6.19 GAA in the 1996 playoffs. Not every goalie who starts fast suffers that fate. For a Jim Carey there is a Cam Ward. And truth be told, those Caps teams on which Carey played that lost to the Penguins in 1995 and 1996 were not really set up for deep playoff runs. The 1995 team won 22 of 48 regular season games and had to go a 5-0-1 run to close the season to clinch a playoff spot, and the 1996 team finished fourth in the Atlantic Division.

By comparison, this Caps team is loaded. So much so that Varlamov is in much the same boat as Jose Theodore. He is probably, at this stage of his career, lacking in sufficient experience to be the cornerstone of a 16-win run to a Stanley Cup. But he can (as he showed last spring) steal games, allowing the Caps to use their impressive skill among their skaters to otherwise dominate opponents.

Varlamov has given no indication of any hangover from his disappointing results in the Penguin series last spring. He is probably ahead of the developmental pace set by the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury, who as a 21-year old was skating on a bad team and suffering through a 13-27-6, 3.25, .898 record with the parent club. Then he crashed and burned at Wilkes-Barre, going 2-3, 3.48, .883 in the Calder Cup playoffs and getting benched in favor of Dany Sabourin in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ last game of the year, a 1-0 series clinching loss to Hershey. Of course, Fleury’ memory of that is no doubt softened by the fact that he backstops the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Varlamov might be following the same arc. That is what it is still possible for him to do.


30 games, 16-9-2, 2.58, .912, 1 shutout


Stimpy said...

You do realize that you have these two goalies playing 84 games for the season, don't you?

The Peerless said...

Yes, I do... because every once in a while, a goalie gets pulled. I also have Michal Neuvirth in four games this year (even though we have no write up for him).

Ryan said...

I've gotta say, these forecasts, and the capsule quotes/mottos you've done for each, have been brilliant.

Justin said...

I love the photo accompanying Varlamov's piece. Ovechkin wouldn't have hit the paddle, though.