Semyon Varlamov isn’t supposed to be doing this.
He isn’t supposed to be 5-0-0 on the season, with an NHL-best .965 save percentage and a minuscule 1.20 goals-against average. He isn’t supposed to be a creature of coachable technique instead of relying on raw athleticism. He isn’t supposed to be excelling with the arguably the best goalie in NHL history as his head coach and player personnel guy. He isn’t supposed to be rewriting the analysis of what was previously thought as a fleece of a trade by the Washington Capitals.
He isn’t supposed to look this confident. This impenetrable. This good.
But for all the reasons the Colorado Avalanche are the surprise of the Western Conference, Varlamov is chief among them. He looks revitalized, reinvigorated. The notion we could be looking at Sergei Bobrovsky 2.0 isn’t outlandish, and not just because of their shared heritage.
Maybe it was a little hasty to write him off. And lord, was he written off before the season.
The writing on the wall was in billboard font when Patrick Roy was hired as coach and vice president of hockey operations: Goaltending god arrives in town, sees goaltending mortal struggling between the pipes, and smites him.
Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla, in a tirade that’s beginning to read as wrongly conceived as a catfish cupcake, proclaimed that “Patrick Roy must dump Semyon Varlamov, get elite goalie for Avalanche” last May. Among the body blows landed on Varlamov:
“Nice knowing you, Varly. Now pack your bags. And get out.
“No offense to Varlamov. But he's not it. He doesn't have it.”
“Varlamov is going to have a devil of a time meeting Saint Patrick's exacting standards. In fact, it might be a waste of time to even try.”
“Sorry, Varly's not the guy.”
“Go get a goalie.”
Well that was … emphatic. Between this and his declaration that the Avalanche should have traded Matt Duchene, I’m starting to question his front office credentials …
But in fairness, he wasn’t the only guy writing off Varlamov.
The Avalanche goalie had put up respectable numbers in his two seasons with Colorado – a 2.59 GAA and a .913 save percentage in 2011-12, and a 3.02 GAA and a .903 save percentage in last season’s disastrous run. He was seen a player that relied too much on his athleticism and not enough on technique; that five seasons into his NHL career, his mechanics hadn’t caught up to his raw skill.
Hey, novel concept: Maybe he just needed the right coach.
Enter Roy, the goaltending legend, and Francois Allaire, the goaltending guru.
During a summer meeting in Montreal, Roy suggested that Varlamov shift the position of his glove hand higher and giving shooters less to target. "The puck is coming from the ice to the top of the net, and I think it's better to have your glove cover more space,” he told Craig Custance of ESPN, citing another goalie that made the change during his career: Dominik Hasek.
Who, you know, also used to rely on raw athletic ability over technique from time to time.
When Roy and the Avalanche hired Allaire, they hired a coach who turned Jean-Sebastien Giguere into a Conn Smythe winner and helped develop Roy into the Hall of Fame goaltender he became. They also hired a coach that stresses the fundamentals of positioning, for a starting goalie who lacked them.
So Allaire and Varlamov trained in Switzerland in the offseason, and the results have been startling. As Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild told the CP, on Varlamov’s athleticism vs. technique:
"Sometimes it would bail him out, but other times it wasn't very economical, and that would cause him some problems," said Goldman, a contributor to NHL.com. "Now what I've seen in these first three games is that he looks a little bit bigger in the net, he's a little bit more calm and patient, and that's allowing him to stay centred in the goal, rely on his positioning a little bit more, let pucks come to him."
… "It's not always about where the puck is coming from but what the shooter sees and what he aims at," Goldman said. "Varlamov, he's so quick anyways that even if his glove is a little bit turned awkwardly or it's not the most effective, he's so quick he's going to be able to grab any puck that he sees because he's just that gifted in terms of his reflexes."
That was never more evident than in this sequence from the Avs’ win over the Dallas Stars, right before Matt Duchene’s second of the night, as Varlamov robs Shawn Horcoff:
"I feel like right now I have two goalie coaches: Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire," Varlamov told the CP. "I can say I work a lot with Francois Allaire. I think he's a great goalie coach, and he's very smart. I'm so excited to have him."
He’s made the most of the opportunity to far, which goes to show how much better Varlamov can be when motivated.
He’s motivated by having two goaltending legends watching his every move, knowing that his job could have hung in the balance had he not put the effort in to refine his game.
He’s motivated by the Olympics, without question, as Varlamov entered the season vying with Bobrovsky for the starting gig on the 2014 Russian Olympic team on home ice in Sochi. What we’re seeing now is akin to Ryan Miller vs. Tim Thomas in 2009 for the U.S.: Thomas played well, but Miller played out of his mind for the Sabres in winning the U.S. starting job. Varlamov is on a similar trajectory at the moment.
He’s motivated by the critics and the doubters, going all the way back to his days with the Washington Capitals, who felt Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby made Varlamov expendable; and then to those who ridiculed the trade (Ed. Note: “Raises Hand”) as being one of the worst in Greg Sherman’s career, overpaying for a restricted free agent.
(It’s still a terrible trade, by the way, despite Adrian Dater’s attempt to justify it here. Varlamov was done with the Capitals, and they with Varlamov. Had the Avs tendered a three-year contract offer sheet to him, Washington wasn’t going to match it, despite GM George McPhee’s posturing. Instead, Sherman traded a first-round pick that became Filip Forsberg and a second-round pick that was flipped for Mike Ribeiro, for a goalie he could have just signed without giving up the lottery pick.)
Oh, yeah: He’s motivated by an expiring contract, too.
Whatever the motivation, Varlamov has been a revelation in the first few weeks of the season. He’s made his critics, at least for the moment, look as baffled as he’s made NHL snipers in giving up just a single even-strength goal in each of his five wins.
He doesn’t need to be the second coming of Patrick Roy. He just needs to make the original model happy. And so far, he is.
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