Semyon Varlamov is only 23 years old. He's barely made his mark in the hockey world. Yet, he's already been the center of some highly publicized controversies. From allegedly threatening to bolt to the KHL if he didn't get the starting job in Washington DC (he was actually just considering his options as he felt he needed a change) to saying American women are fat (he actually said "heavy set" and, as 30% of the country is obese, well....he's right), the young goaltender has gotten some press that hasn't shed the best light on him. It's a shame because the product he delivers on the ice is nothing short of inspiring, and that's what really should be in the headlines.
Varlamov was born on April 27, 1988, in what was - at the time - the USSR (Kubyshev, Russia). At 8, he picked up a skater's stick and decided it wasn't enough for him: too small, too fragile. Thus, he swapped it out for a goaltender's and, even before he could skate, he started down the path of a netminder. In his early teens, he moved with his family to Yaroslavl and quickly became the favored goalie on his young team. He showed impressive talent early on and, by 2004, was a hot enough commodity that Lokomotiv Yaroslavl's Junior farm club, Lokomotiv-2, brought him on to back up Ivan Kaustin. In 8 games, he posted one shut out and a 2.43 GAA.
In 2005, Varlamov was a member of the Russian IIHF World Championship U-18 team as a back up to teammate Kasutin. Varlamov played in 6 games. He also made a 4-game appearance at the World Junior Championships that year. In the summer of 2005, Kasutin was loaned to Dizel Penza, allowing Varlamov to secure the starting job for Lokomotiv's second team for the 2005-2006 season. He handled the pressure well, managing 8 shut outs in 33 games (2.02 GAA).
He also represented Russia in 2006 at the WJC U-18 as a starter (2.82 GAA, .921 save percentage) and the WJC U-20 as a back up. Despite a strong showing by the netminder, the U-18 crew finished in 5th place. At the U-20, he played in one game, stopping 19 of 20 shots in a 3-1 win over Latvia. The Russians took home the silver.
In the summer of 2006, the Washington Capitals drafted Varlamov in the 1st round (23rd overall). He attended training camp in the fall but returned to Russia to split goaltending duties for Lokomotiv with veteran Igor Podomatsky for the 2006-2007 season. The club ended with the 7th best record of the league, and the 18-year-old Varlamov gave 3 shut out performances, with a 2.17 GAA, in 33 games. His level of play helped push his team to the playoffs where they swept Dynamo Moscow in the first round. However, the team lost to 2nd place Avangard Omsk in the quarterfinals. Varlamov's GAA was 2.94 for the 6 games he played.
On July 11, 2007, he signed a 3-year, entry-level contract with the Capitals. He attended training camp for the 2007-2008 season but was subsequently loaned to Yaroslavl to become their starter. He posted a 2.45 GAA and .909 save percentage in 44 games. The team ended in 5th place. In the playoffs, the Russian team surprised everyone with a strong run into the finals. Despite a dominating performance by the netminder with a 1.62 GAA and 5 shutouts in the 16 games, Lokomotiv was not able to take home championship.
At the 2007 WJC U-20, the Russian really made his mark on the international hockey scene. In their quest that brought home the silver, Varlamov was the 2nd best goalie in the tournament behind Carey Price. He allowed only 9 goals on 136 shots for a 1.51 GAA. He won 5 of 6 contests, two of which were shut outs. He wasn't able to attend the 2008 WJC U-20 tournament due to injury.
Varlamov finally made his North American debut with the Hershey Bears for the 2008-2009 season. He played 27 games for Washington's AHL affiliate, going 19-7-1 with a 2.40 GAA and .920 save percentage. He was called up in February to back up Jose Theodore after Brent Johnson went down with a hip injury. The rookie played 6 games, pulling out 4 wins. One of those wins came on his first ever NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens. He made 32 saves and was named the first star of the game.
On April 18, 2009, Varlamov appeared in his first playoff game for the NHL. He replaced Theodore in game 1 against the New York Rangers after the starter gave up 4 goals early in the game. The Capitals lost the game. However, in game 3, Varlamov became the 4th goalie in league history to post a playoff shut out prior to his 21st birthday. He got his second shut out in game 5.
The rookie continued his winning streak in games 6 and 7, propelling the Capitals to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1998. Things didn't go well for them, however, as they lost in 7 games to the eventual champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Varlamov was pulled in game 7 after 4 early goals, an example of his tendency to give up goals in bunches.
Theodore was the established starter for Washington when the 2009-2010 season started. Nonetheless, the young goaltender challenged for the honor with a hot start. Unfortunately, an untimely groin injury forced him out of the game for nearly two months and back to Hershey for rehab. He was recalled on March 1, 2010 as a back up.
Despite the difficult year, Varlamov started most games in the Caps' playoff run that spring. His 2.41 GAA and .908 save percentage were not enough, though, to get them past the first round, losing to Montreal in 6 games.
It seemed Varlamov would get his chance at being number one when Theodore was not re-signed in the summer of 2010. However, another injury forced time away from the ice, giving back up netminder Michal Neuvirth the job. Neuvirth continued to play well enough to keep it. The Russian played in only 27 games in the 2010-2011 season, and despite a stellar .924 save percentage, he did not see any action in the Caps' playoff run.
On July 1, 2011, Semyon Varmalov was traded to the Colorado Avalanche - in what has been described as a lopsided deal - for a 2012 first round draft pick and a conditional 2012 or 2013 second round pick. What people seem to forget, however, is that the 6'2" 209 lb Russian has proven that he has exceptional skills in net. He's described as having a unique hybrid style which allows him to utilize his impressive speed and stellar reaction time to not only make seemingly impossible saves but also regain positioning quickly. He has composure beyond his years and a quick glove hand. Although he doesn't play the puck much, it's not unusual to see him poke check a cross-crease pass out of harm's way. He's positionally sound and has a strong desire to be the best goaltender on the ice. With a fresh start, a healthy body, and a solid mentor in Jean-Sebastien Giguere, there's no reason he can't be.