In the Crease: Semyon Varlamov Era Ending for the Colorado Avalanche

Before Semyon Varlamov, the Colorado Avalanche struggled to find any consistency in their net. In 2009-10, they thought they had solved their problem with ex-Florida Panthers goalie Craig Anderson. After starting 71 games and leading the Avs back to the post-season, he struggled for consistency in 2010-11. This resulted in Anderson splitting the starting duties with backup Peter Budaj. However, neither of the two broke the .900 save percentage mark. The team dealt Anderson at the trade deadline to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Brian Elliott. Unfortunately for them, Elliott performed even worse.

Exiting that season, the Avs let both Budaj and Elliott leave via free agency. This left the team entirely vacant at the position.

Enter Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

Varly (Maybe) Starting His Farewell Season in Denver

Varlamov came to Colorado via a trade with the Washington Capitals on July 1st that summer. He had shown great promise with the Caps, but only in a secondary role to Michal Neuvirth and Jose Theodore. When the Avs traded for him, they envisioned Varlamov developing into a long-term starting goaltender at the NHL level. Adding Giguere gave Varly a veteran mentor to learn from too.

The deal paid off, as Semyon Varlamov has been the team’s go-to guy ever since. Across seven seasons, he holds a .916 save percentage and a 2.70 goals against average. Considering how weak the Avs were for most of that time, Varlamov posted strong numbers to say the least. He earned a Vezina nomination in 2013-14 too, when his 41 wins led the entire NHL.

Varly’s Downside: Injuries

Unfortunately for Colorado, Semyon Varlamov seems to be cursed with the injury bug. Almost every year, he’s missed at least a handful of games due to various injuries. Most recently, and most significantly, a torn groin held Varlamov out for the majority of 2016-17.

Then, further injury in 2017-18 sidelined the netminder for the end of last season, including all games in the Avs first playoff appearance since 2013-14. As well as Jonathan Bernier performed when Varly was out, the team undoubtedly would’ve preferred a healthy Semyon Varlamov for the post-season.

The last two years have seen the most significant injuries to the goaltender. He only played 75 games in the two seasons combined, after playing over 70 percent of the team’s games for his first five seasons in Colorado. Two years ago, when the team finished dead last in the league with just 48 points, Varly only played 24 games. In his absence, Calvin Pickard, although not terrible, didn’t do the Avs many favors. While they likely would have fell well short of the post-season even with a healthy Varlamov, they wouldn’t have been the historically bad team they ended up being.

Philipp Grubauer: Future of Colorado’s Crease

With Varlamov’s injuries in the forefront of his mind, Avalanche General Manager Joe Sakic made moves in 2018 to shore up the goaltending position. A year earlier, the answer was Bernier and Andrew Hammond, two middle-aged backups, to provide support to Varlamov. Bernier performed well, but there’s no doubt that Sakic hoped Varly would’ve been available to play more often than it turned out. This is especially true for their playoff series against the Nashville Predators.

This season, Sakic took a stronger approach and went after goalies looking to become regulars in the NHL (rather than goalies who already were regulars, but strictly as backups). Avs fans may have felt some deja-vu, as Sakic traded draft picks for the Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Like Varlamov seven years earlier, Grubauer is a young goaltender with impressive numbers. Also similar to Varlamov, Grubauer was trapped in a backup role with the Capitals. For Varly, it was Theodore and Neuvirth; for Grubauer, it’s Braden Holtby.

Grubauer, 27, is entering his prime right now and ready to fight for starting minutes this upcoming season. Varlamov, 30, is coming off two injury-riddled seasons. He’ll have to stay healthy just to defend his role as starter, and healthy or not, Grubauer will be pushing to supplant him as the team’s go-to guy.

The Puck Stops Here: Make it or Break it Time

From this perspective, it looks like Colorado should have a strong tandem in net next season. However, the story gets more complicated when viewing the team’s depth at the position and their contracts. Grubauer immediately inked an extension with Colorado when acquired that carries through the next three seasons. Semyon Varlamov is entering the last year of his contract. With a cap hit of $5.9 million, Varly carries almost twice the price Grubauer ($3.33 million) does.

Should Grubauer perform, Varlamov can quickly become expendable. Colorado has a large number of players who will be RFA’s next summer too. Not only that, but many of those players will be seeking significant raises. As a predominantly young team, Sakic must be extra careful with his budget. They’ll have to navigate each deal to make sure the team retains its core pieces.

Next summer, as mentioned, holds quite a few guys in this situation: J.T. CompherMikko RantanenNikita Zadorov, and Alexander Kerfoot will all get significant pay bumps. It’s hard to imagine Varlamov staying in Colorado at his current pay grade, especially if Grubauer proves himself able enough.

But wait, there’s more.

Goaltending Depth Behind Varlamov and Grubauer

Aside from nabbing Grubauer in hopes to transition the starting role over to a younger, less risky option, Sakic also signed Pavel Francouz to establish stronger depth in net too. Francouz, 28, comes from the KHL where he recorded multiple successful seasons. He represented the Czech Republic at the 2018 Winter Olympics as their starting goaltender too. This is his first North American job, and on a one-year deal worth just $660,000, he’s a major bargain.

Spencer Martin still resides in Colorado’s system, but Francouz definitely appears to be third on their depth chart. He’s two years younger than Varlamov too, and with KHL experience, he definitely has his eyes set on an NHL gig.

Without Francouz, the situation looked to be “Varlamov mentors Grubauer and slowly transitions out as Grubauer becomes more ready”. However, now it appears the Avs see a shorter time horizon for their goaltending situation. Francouz could likely serve in a backup capacity for most teams in the NHL. This one-year deal he is on seems perfectly designed for him to prove his worth and get an immediate raise.

Avs Might Trade Varlamov Sooner than Later

Since all three of these guys want to play, Sakic could be poised to make a move soon. It could mean that near the trade deadline, Semyon Varlamov becomes trade bait. Obviously this hinges on where the team is at in the standings, and how well Grubauer plays, but it’s not hard to imagine the Avs looking to get something in return for Varlamov rather than losing him on the open market next summer.

Potential for a “Good, Hockey Move” with Varlamov

Varlamov definitely still carries a lot of value. He’s a proven starting goaltender, but his injury history reduces his stock some. The fact that his contract expires at the end of the season means he’d probably be a rental for whoever acquires him, which means Colorado can’t expect an enormous return. That being said, they could negotiate a sign-and-trade to increase the return.

Varlamov’s value would plummet if he were to get injured. This means the longer Sakic hangs on to him, and the more often he plays, the greater the risk of losing him for nothing becomes. This makes an early-season trade a possibility too; a strong start for Varlamov could raise his stock, and Sakic would get more out of an early trade than he could get later in the year.

Varly! Varly!

In 340 games with the Avalanche, Semyon Varlamov compiled a 163-137-29 record. He holds the single-season wins record for Colorado with 41, and the highest single-season save percentage of .927 (both in 2013-14). Chants of “Varly! Varly!” have rang through the Pepsi Center in Denver hundreds of times over the last seven years. Known for his flexibility and athleticism, Varlamov possessed that game-breaking ability for the Avs.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. If he simply stayed healthy, the Semyon Varlamov era in Colorado might have gone on for another five to ten seasons. However, the frequency at which the Avs are forced to rely on backups for long stretches of time has forced them to look at other options. Grubauer is set up nicely in Colorado, and has a fantastic opportunity laid in front of him. The Avs are young but quickly developing, and should Grubauer take advantage of the situation, they might have their backbone in place for a long time to come.

Semyon Varlamov’s Career is Not Over

Varlamov will undoubtedly find himself a contract somewhere else in the NHL. He will likely perform well, too, wherever he ends up. There’s no questioning his ability and there’s no sense of disappointment in his play either. If he takes a pay cut for his next contract, or if he is relegated to a supporting or backup role, it will all strictly be due to his injury history. It’s an extremely unfortunate situation for a Vezina-caliber goalie, but one the Avs cannot gamble with any more as their team competes for playoff success.

Avs fans hope Varlamov gets a few more stellar outings in with Colorado before his reign as the go-to guy comes to an end for him. Either way, they’re thankful for his years in Denver. Hopefully Grubauer can reach that same level, because a healthy goaltender with Varlamov’s ability could make this team a Cup contender in the very near future.

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