Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 5: The Goalie

Number five is next on the look back at top stories in 2009…

Number 5: The Goalie

On March 9, 2006, the Capitals traded defenseman Brendan Witt to the Nashville Predators for former Capital Kris Beech and a first round draft pick. The pick was nice, and Beech was more or less an afterthought. The object of the exercise was to move a player who expressed a distinct lack of interest in the rebuild in which the Capitals found themselves. Witt was soon a memory, Beech would soon be one, even as he played in 64 games for the Caps the following season, and the thought of the draft pick was stashed away in the attic of Caps Nation’s memory.

Fast forward to June 2006. For fans of the Washington Capitals the attention was focused at the top of the first round, where the Caps had the fourth overall pick. It was a pick with some uncertainty attached, as there was a case to be made for the Caps to take any of Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, or Phil Kessel, if any of this quintet was available. The Caps selected Backstrom (and we know how that turned out), leaving the 23rd overall selection as a bit of an afterthought at draft day parties held by Caps fans.

With that 23rd overall pick the Caps selected a virtual unknown (to Caps fans, at least) – a young goaltender from Russia, Semyon Varlamov. The talent analysis at the time would not have given comfort to Caps fans…

"A good sized netminder who plays smaller than he really is... plays more of a butterfly style...doesn't cover a big space of the net, but makes up for this drawback with quality reflexes and athleticism...an okay skater with a decent lateral movement in the crease...moves fast side-to-side...does precise splits to stop the puck which makes up a bit for his mediocre length of the legs...challenges the shooter and relies on his skating ability...adequate on the blocker side...a solid fast glove hand...handles most of the rebounds well thanks to a strong dexterity and flexibility...adequate anticipation of the developing plays...should particularly upgrade on his dealing with hard initial shots...tends to allow the odd soft goal through his five-hole...tends to play too deep in the net occasionally, thus being vulnerable to the initial shots...displays only average puckhandling ability and should work on his stickhandling ability…A butterfly style goalie...moves well both in the butterfly and on his skates...weak in handling the puck outside the crease...improving with the control of the rebounds...takes up a lot of space the net (source: russianprospects.com)"

Except for a glimpse of Varlamov at Capitals development camp, there really wasn’t a lot to know about Varlamov, other than he was another Russian. But he was giving indications that the pick would yield benefits down the road. At Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in 2006-2007 he posted a 2.17 goals against average with three shutouts. The following year his numbers might have appeared to slip a bit in the regular season, but he had a remarkable playoff campaign, posting a 1.62 GAA and five shutouts in 16 post season games. He was ready to hop the pond.

At Hershey to start the 2008-2009 season, he appeared to suffer no particular problems with the smaller rink or the distance from home, at least on the ice, going 19-7-1, 2.40, .920, and two shutouts with the Bears. His play in Hershey earned him a call from the Caps, one that was not without adventure. The Caps were without a backup goaltender on hand and with Brent Johnson the only semi-healthy goalie, himself suffering from a bad hip (which would eventually require surgery). While Brett Leonhardt was being plucked from the video production studio to serve as emergency backup, Varlamov was getting a phone call in the middle of a ride to the next town in Texas where the Bears would be skating. Varlamov made it to DC during a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators and would get the call the next night, in Montreal, ground zero for professional hockey.

That Varlamov was impressive in his debut on that December night in Montreal is to damn with faint praise. He stopped 32 of 33 shots in a packed Bell Centre, including 14 in a third period that was tied until Michael Nylander scored with 2:32 left to give the rookie his NHL debut win. It would hardly be the last time Varlamov would impress. Although he was sent back down after a win over St. Louis on December 18th, he was recalled in March. He would appear in three games over the rest of the regular season and would finish up the year 4-0-1, 2.37, .918. It seemed a fine introduction to NHL hockey. But then, as they say, things took a turn…

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers, starting goalie Jose Theodore allowed three goals in the first 38 minutes and then, after the Caps clawed back to tie things up early in the third period, allowed the game winner with 8:17 left in the third period. The 4-3 loss convinced Coach Bruce Boudreau to roll the dice and send Varlamov between the pipes for Game 2. Varlamov allowed a first period goal by Ryan Callahan, but it was the only goal he would allow. Unfortunately, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist was one better in a 1-0 Rangers win. Boudreau needed no convincing, though to send Varlamov out again against the Rangers from then on. His gamble was rewarded in Game 3 and over the rest of the series as Varlamov went 4-2, 1.17, .957, and two shutouts.

Varlamov was the toast of the town whose performance was drawing comparisons to another youngster who was brought up late and given the playoff reins 28 years earlier – Ken Dryden. There were differences, though, between Dryden’s parlaying six regular season games of experience into a Stanley Cup in 1971 and Varlamov’s run. The vast cultural differences aside between a goalie who grew up in the North American sport and one who was still finding his way in a new country, Dryden was 23 years old when he won the Cup, Varlamov had just turned 21 the day before Game 7 of the Rangers series. Dryden had three seasons of NCAA hockey at Cornell University, a stint with the IIHF World & European Championship Pool A, and 33 games with the Montreal Voyageurs of the AHL before getting his shot with the Canadiens. Varlamov did have comparable stops along the way, but not to the extent that Dryden did. Varlamov was in the deep water without a lot of experience, and his performance had been truly amazing.

But reality – and a hail of shots over seven games – came crashing down on Varlamov and the Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Varlamov would win the first two games of the series (and have what was probably the save of the Stanley Cup tournament on Sidney Crosby in Game 1), but there were ominous signs as the Penguins pounded 36 shots at him in each game. The barrage finally caused the wall that was Varlamov to give way in the last five games of the series, of which the young goalie and the Caps lost four, Varlamov being pulled after 22 minutes of a Game 7 loss.

Even with the difficulties in the second round, Varlamov finished the playoffs 7-6, 2.53, .918, with two shutouts, a more than respectable performance for any goalie, let alone one with as little professional experience as Varlamov had. He carried his fine play over into the 2009 portion of the 2009-2010 season, posting to date a 12-1-2 record, a 2.21 GAA, a .924 save percentage, and two shutouts. His 16-1-3 record to start his NHL career (not to mention four shuouts in his last 28 games played, including playoffs) has been remarkable. For that reason “The Goalie” is one of the top stories for the Capitals in 2009.



1) There is no doubt the kid has talent, and potential to be a dominating force between the Caps' pipes for a decade to come, BUT..
2) His injury tendencies at such a young age have to give pause. Can he play the rigors as a #1 goalie(play 50-60 games) plus 15-20 playoff games and remain healthy?

The Peerless said...

That is why you don't move Neuvirth or Holtby. The Caps have miles to go before having to make that decision.