When the New York Islanders let breakout star goalie Robin Lehner walk via free agency this summer, eyebrows were raised. After all, the big Swede had worked through enormous adversity to put in the best season of his career while helping the Islanders to a surprising second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and a first-round sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now, to be fair, fellow stopper Thomas Greiss had played just as well for the Isles last year and he was returning for 2019-20, but New York also went out and grabbed former Colorado starter Semyon Varlamov to fill the crease.
Varlamov became expendable in Colorado thanks to the ascent of Philipp Grubauer, but it wasn’t that long ago that Varlamov was at the top of his game. Back in 2013-14, he was runner-up in Vezina Trophy voting to Boston’s Tuukka Rask, as Varlamov helped the Avs to a shocking first-place finish in the Central Division under coach Patrick Roy.
Having a Hall of Fame goalie as your bench boss can be an advantage for a netminder, but Varlamov also had one of the most famous goalie coaches of all-time on the Avs during that pivotal time in his career. Recently, I spoke with Francois Allaire and his time in Colorado with Varlamov was one of the topics.
“Varlamov was an excellent goalie but he had a couple problems with his consistency,” Allaire said. “We used his athleticism, but put in a structure so he wouldn’t be such a streaky guy.”
Taking the guess-work out of saves was key. If Varlamov knew what to do, he wouldn’t be searching for the perfect move for a situation because he would already be prepared.
“On-ice, off-ice, in the video room, it was about having the same movement over and over,” Allaire said. “If one situation came up three or four times in a game, we wanted him to react to it the same way each time. Varly had a great season that year and he didn’t have any injuries, which slowed him down later.”
Ah yes, the injuries. The big X-factor that has dogged him in recent seasons. During that 2013-14 campaign with the Avs, Varlamov made 63 appearances in net, but due to a variety of ailments, he hasn’t hit that mark since. Last season, he only missed a couple of games due to a lower-body injury, but before that he dealt with a knee injury, a strained groin, hip surgery and more groin issues.
All those maladies took chunks out of his seasons and it was always difficult to gauge whether Varlamov’s game was falling off, or if he was just always fighting through something physical.
So far this season, it feels like ‘Varly’ is back. His 2.42 goals-against average is the best he’s had since that 2013-14 campaign, while the .921 save percentage ranks among the best in his NHL career. The Islanders are once again one of the best defensive teams in the league and Greiss is holding up his end of the crease work, too.
In terms of goalie coaches, Varlamov is still fortunate even though Allaire retired several years ago: the Islanders employ netminding guru Mitch Korn as their director of goaltending, while Piero Greco is the official goalie coach. Last year when I interviewed Lehner about the learning environment on Long Island, he was quick to make sure that Greco got credit for his work and not just the better-known Korn.
So the table is set for Varlamov. Now, he just has to stay consistent - and perhaps most importantly, stay healthy.
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