TORONTO – It has rarely been a question of talent for Semyon Varlamov.
More times than not, the athletic goaltender has been done in by injuries. Only once has he played more than 35 games in a season, so it’s tough to know what the Colorado Avalanche have in him, even at the age of 25.
Perhaps they’re about to find out.
Under the tutelage of new goaltending coach Francois Allaire and Hall of Fame goalie/head coach Patrick Roy, Varlamov has taken the first major steps toward a breakout season. He has stopped 88 of 91 shots in three victories and has been a huge reason why the Avalanche are 3-0 for the first time since the franchise moved to Denver.
“He’s made a big commitment this year to come in ready for training camp,” Roy said. “Right now what I like about his play is he looks simple. Every time you look at him it looks easy, he’s always square to the shooters, he’s at the right place. He plays a simple game. I think there’s a reason why he has so much success. That’s what Francois and himself are working a lot on.”
The work hardly ever ends. Varlamov said after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs that he practises on the ice with Allaire for two hours a day.
“I’ve never worked like that, so in the practice I’m dying every day,” Varlamov said. “That’s how he works, that’s his style.”
For a goalie with past knee and groin issues, overworking could be a dangerous recipe. But in this case, Allaire’s teaching might be exactly what Varlamov needs to avoid injuries.
According to goalie analyst Justin Goldman, Allaire has been helping Varlamov conserve his movements and flop around in the crease less. During his career to this point, Varlamov relied on his reflexes and athleticism “way too often.”
“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 still early, but the stats show an improvement. Varlamov has a 1.00 goals-against average, .967 save percentage and on Tuesday picked up a road win. He didn’t get one of those until April last season.
Varlamov is the Avalanche’s clear No. 1 goaltender, something they hoped for when trading a first- and a second-round pick to the Washington Capitals for his rights in the summer of 2011. He started 53 games in 2011-12 and then 35 in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
The potential exists for Varlamov to set a career high in starts if Allaire’s teachings have a positive effect on his health.
“Being more economical in your movements is going to cause you to not have to make extension saves as often,” Goldman said. “Varlamov is one of those goalies, he wants to stop the puck so badly, that’s where you see some of that impatience, some of that hurriedness in his game. He’s really explosive, he’s really strong.”
In addition to staying more square to shooters, Goldman said Varlamov is holding his glove at a slightly different angle. Varlamov’s glove hand has improved drastically since the Pittsburgh Penguins eventually exposed it in a playoff series against the Capitals in 2009.
“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.”
Varlamov was a first-round pick in 2006 largely because he was so naturally gifted. That hasn’t changed.
But when he first arrived in Colorado, the team did not have a full-time goalie coach.
“It’s a complete 180-degree turn from kind of the goaltending philosophy the organization has had, at least from my experience, from the last lockout in 2004,” said Goldman, who used to live in Denver. “(Allaire) just has so much experience, and his system is terrific for a goalie like Varlamov, a guy who clearly has incredible athleticism, great reflexes, just unbelievable natural talent but still needs to build the base, the foundational base of his positional game.”
Goldman called that building a “work in progress,” because Varlamov still isn’t as economical in net as the Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier. If the six-foot-two Russian manages to get there, he’ll have a couple of people to thank.
“I feel like right now I have two goalie coaches: Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire,” Varlamov said. “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.”