Wednesday, September 15, 2010

2010-2011 Previews: Goaltenders -- Semyon Varlamov

Semyon Varlamov

Theme: “Control your own destiny or someone else will.”

-- Jack Welch

Well, it’s time.  After a precocious beginning to his career in which he saw sparse, but effective action (4-0-1, 2.37, .918) in the 2008-2009 regular season; after he became the darling of the hockey media upon going 6-2, 1.51, .945, with two shutouts to open the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs after relieving Jose Theodore in goal; after the effective (if somewhat unfulfilling) 15-4-6 record he posted in an injury-interrupted 2009-2010 regular season; after performing decently (if not particularly outstanding) in last spring’s disappointing loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs (again, in relief of Jose Theodore); Semyon Varlamov is now poised to assume his place as the number one goaltender for a Stanley Cup contender.

He will not turn 23 until next April, but the net is now Varlamov's for the taking.  He has the inside track on the number one goaltender position on fellow 2006-draftee Michal Neuvirth; all he has to do is stay upright, in a manner of speaking.

Varlamov injured his groin on the last shot he faced in a 3-0 shutout win over Tampa Bay in early January.  At the time he was 12-1-2, 2.21, .924 and two shutouts in the last four games he played.   You could almost call the engraver to make sure it was spelled “Semyon,” not “Simeon” on the Calder Trophy.  Then…

30 games later, Varlamov was ready to return to the ice, after having suffered a setback from his original injury during a rehabilitation assignment in Hershey.  In his first game back, he gave up six goals on 28 shots in a 6-5 loss to Ottawa and was the subject of this commentary from his coach:

"It was an ugly display.  I thought our defense was horrible and our goaltending was horrible. You're not going to win when you give up six goals and maybe five of them are bad ones and our 'D' can't make a play. It's awful.  I don't think he was ready to play.  I don't know if it was slow, rusty or a combination of both. You can use whatever term you want -- I don't think he was ready to play. He knew he was going to play. He's had 12 days of practice and a game under his belt.  It's his responsibility to be ready.  When you say he's rusty or whatever; that's an excuse, and excuses can't be tolerated.  One goal went right through the legs -- he's been making that save since he was seven years old."

Frankly, he was not that much better in closing the remainder of the regular season.  After that debacle in Ottawa, Varlamov went 3-2-4, 2.76, .896, and allowed at least three goals in six of the nine games in which he played.  Was this an aftermath of the injury, or did it signal a disturbing plateau to his game?  It is hard to get a signal from his playoff performance in relief of Jose Theodore, since he was 3-3, 2.41, .908 in those games.  Not terrible, but not nearly as noteworthy as the start to his playoff season in 2009.

He was a clear rookie-of-the-year candidate in December 2009.  By spring 2010, he was clearly the number two goalie behind Theodore, and only Theodore’s second straight deflating performance gave Varlamov another chance.  Now, Varlamov is presumably healthy and, with no Theodore in the mix, has that inside track.  It is up to him to do something with that opportunity.

Fearless:  Clearly, when he is on, he is on.  And his early-career numbers compare favorably to those of his contemporaries.  For example, at the age of 22 he is 19-4-7, 2.52, .911.  By his 22nd birthday, Marc-Andre Fleury had yet to post in any of his first three seasons a GAA lower than 2.83 or a save percentage better than .906.  Carey Price had a GAA almost a quarter of a goal more than that of Varlamov and a virtually identical save percentage.  Even Cam Ward, having won a Stanley Cup, had a goals-against average well over 3.00 and a save percentage below .900 for his career at age 22.

Cheerless:  OK, cuz, the Fleury one doesn’t really fit; he played a a gawd-awful team.  But while you’re posting those other fancy numbers, ponder this… last year against teams that would make the Eastern Conference playoffs, he was 3-2-2, 3.40, .891.  You excited about that?

In the end…

The number one goaltending job is, at the moment, Varlamov’s to lose.  But given the production of Michal Neuvirth the past two years, lose it he can.  Varlamov has been spectacular at times, but there also have been times when he has been anything but.  This might be dismissed as a product of his youth and comparative inexperience with the North American game.  But truth be told, his production after the Olympic break last season leaves one with lingering questions.

Varlamov was 6-5-4, 2.62, .901 after the break (regular season and playoffs).  These aren’t terrible numbers, but they are quite a drop off from his pre-injury numbers, and 15 games is not an insignificant portion of a season.

It is rare in the broad scope of NHL history that a goalie this young leads his club to a Stanley Cup.  But two things should be noted.  It isn’t impossible, and you don’t have to go back to Patrick Roy in 1986 (20 years old, 48 games of regular season experience) to find examples.  Since the lockout, Cam Ward (21 years old, 28 games of regular season experience) and Antti Niemi (26 years old, 42 games of regular season experience) have accomplished the feat.  Varlamov, if all goes well, could enter the playoffs next spring on the eve of his 23rd birthday with 80-90 games of regular season experience, plus the 19 post season games under his belt (neither Ward nor Niemi, nor Roy for that matter, had NHL post season experience before embarking on their respective first Stanley Cup runs).

Second, and this goes hand in glove with the first point, the game is different now than perhaps it was before the lockout.  The Patrick Roy-Martin Brodeur-Dominik Hasek level of goalie that dominated the 1990’s and early 2000’s is no longer an absolute requirement for a club to go deep in the playoffs or win the whole thing.  The defense in front of him has to be deep and talented, if recent experience is a guide.  Whether the Caps have that is another matter, but the point here is that Varlamov’s lack of experience does not eliminate him as a potential Cup-winning goaltender this year.

Varlamov doesn’t have to be other-worldly, he merely needs to be very good, very consistent, and very healthy to give himself – and the Caps – their best chance at a title this season.


52 games: 30-13-4, 2.48, .918, 2 shutouts

For your mystery reading enjoyment

Sometimes, the Caps read like a Stieg Larsson novel – sparse, but full of intrigue. The latest chapter in the Caps mystery to unfold is what happened to the signing of center Eric Belanger. The erstwhile Caps center, obtained by the club as a rental at the trading deadline last season but since an unrestricted free agent, had been reported as more or less signed-in-secret for the past several weeks. All that delayed a formal announcement was a concurrent trade of a Caps roster player to be consummated.

Well, this morning, Eric Belanger is a Phoenix Coyote, having signed a one-year deal for a reported $750,000, a sum that is $1 million less than he earned last season. Belanger’s agent, Joe Tacopina, was not pleased at the Capitals’ treatment of his client:

"It's just disingenuous. Despite a two-way commitment and requesting Eric to commit to them and take himself out of the [free agent] mix, when they wound up not being able to make the trade several weeks later, they decided they couldn't sign him."

Agent’s spin their tales to put their clients in the best light, and sometimes that means taking on the air of the aggrieved party, whether the circumstances fit the narrative or not. But this certainly has been a bizarre case from start to finish. It isn’t the first time the Caps have been involved in a tale with many twists and turns, however. You don’t even have to go too far back in time to find them. Two seasons ago, there was the matter of Bill Guerin and a “mystery team” to which he was going to be traded. Speculation at the time centered on Washington, and there was no lack of discussion about that potential destination.

Then there was the almost year-long mystery surrounding the eventual destination of exiled center Michael Nylander. He had a role in the Guerin story (mostly about his having to be moved to clear salary cap room to accommodated Guerin’s salary), but he was a candidate to settle in any number of world locales – Switzerland, Russia, Finland, Michigan.

Now we have Eric Belanger, the unmade deal, and the mystery trade that was never made. The Caps have been quite the mystery over the last couple of years. And their close-to-the-vest manner of operating, leaking little, but leaving much to the imagination – no better personified than by the poker-faced general manager George McPhee – makes for interesting reading.

We might call it “The Boy With The Inscrutable Expression.”