Craig Anderson, Brian Elliott, Peter Budaj, John Grahame, and Jason Bacashihua - these were the goalies in the Avs system last year. Guess how many are still with the organization?
That's right - zip, zilch, nada. After an abysmal season, the Avs completely cleaned house, clear through the back-up position of their AHL affiliate.
Anderson - the hero that almost single-handedly secured the 2010 playoff berth for the Avs - looked horrible in the first half of the 2010-11 season. Instead of the nice 2.63GAA he had put up the previous year, he stayed at a near constant 3.28GAA and below .900%. He was then traded to Ottawa in February for another struggling netminder - Brian Elliott. Anderson returned to better than his 2010 form while playing with the Sens, posting an unreal 2.05 GAA and .939%. Elliott.... didn't. Granted, he didn't have the greatest defense in front of him (by this point, the Avs were deep into their defensive depth charts due to numerous injuries), but he was leapfrogging Budaj for the title of worst Avalanche goalie. It didn't work out well. The two netminders both finished with above a 3.20GAA and well below a .900%. The Avs realized that neither of those goalies were ever going to be legitimate starters in the NHL and that Grahame and Bacashihua didn't have a future above the AHL level, so they chose not to renew their contracts and turned their attention elsewhere.
July 1st brought sweeping changes to the Avs as far as goalies were concerned. The day started off with a controversial trade with Washington that brought 23-year-old Semyon Varlamov to Colorado. A few hours later, free-agent and former Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere joined him, and a week after that, another young goaltender named Cedrick Desjardins was signed.
What does all of this mean for the Avs? 2011-12 is a completely fresh start for the position the Avs have been struggling to fill since Patrick Roy left. Each of the new goaltenders are high-risk high-reward gambles - the Avs are just hoping one or more of them work out. But even if that's not the case, due to good drafting in the past few years, there are a few rookies in the system who might be able to step up in a few seasons.
I'll explain more after the jump....
A First and a Second traded for a Big Hope
First of all, Semyon Varlamov is 23. That makes him the second youngest starting goalie in the league this year - Steve Mason of the Blue Jackets is only 32 days younger. Varly's YOUNG, but he's also really, really good.
In the 3 seasons he's been in the NHL, he's played in 78 games including 19 playoff ones. Over that time, he's still managed to maintain a 2.39GAA and .917% in the regular season and a 2.49GAA and .915% in the post-season. He plays a bit more of a stand-up style, but is extremely athletic and quick. If you need any convincing, check out this save from the Burgundy and White game. The kid has talent - there's no doubt of that.
However, the same athletic style that makes him so good also makes him very injury prone. He is yet to get through an entire season without an injury of some sort. His groin especially is a trouble area. He worked with a strength coach this summer to try to make himself more durable, but counting on him for an entire season is a huge risk. However, it's a risk Avalanche GM Greg Sherman was willing to take.
After a bit of a fiasco with Varlamov threatening to return to the KHL, the Capitals traded him on free-agency day for a 1st round pick in 2012 and a 2nd round pick in either 2012 (either Colorado's or Boston's) or 2013. A lot Avalanche fans are still very concerned with this trade since the 2012 draft looks to be one of the best and deepest in years. However, it's rare that a player has so much control over what he was traded for. If Varlamov plays well, the 1st round pick could be lower than the #23 he was drafted at in 2006. If he doesn't and the Avs suffer a collapse like they did last year, they could have easily given up a lottery pick that could haunt them for years. However, due to other moves made this summer, the chance of a top 5 pick going to Washington is slim. There is always that possibility, but the pick will probably be closer to the #15 than the #5.
Regardless, Varly has already established himself as a fan-favorite. Even though he plays a different style, Patrick Roy was his favorite goalie growing up and the Avs were his favorite team. His heavily accented (but still pretty decent) English has endeared him to many of the Avalanche faithful as well. According to him, he now plays for the "Colurahdo Havalanche" and is very excited about it. His game is a bit off right now - he played with many of the players that died in the Lokomotiv plane crash earlier this summer, and his mind has understandably been on that for the past few weeks. But once he finds his form, look out. He promises to be perhaps the most talented goalie the Avs have had since his boyhood idol donned the sweater. Given what the team gave up to get him, he'll be between the pipes in burgundy and blue for many years.
Finding Out What's Left in the Tank
Jean-Sébastien Giguère has had a long and varied career. He was drafted by the Whalers (now the Hurricanes) in 1995, the same summer that saw the Avs arrive in Colorado. He played a spattering of games as a call-up with both the Whalers and the Flames before being traded to Anaheim. '00-'01 was his official rookie season, and he only got better from there. In '03, he led a herculean effort that propelled the Mighty Ducks to their first Stanley Cup Finals. They swept the defending Stanley Cup Champs (the Red Wings) in the first round, but the Ducks eventually lost to the Devils in a 7 game Finals series. Yet "Jiggy" still received the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, becoming only the 5th player from the losing team to do so.
As it turns out, Varly will be the second young Russian goaltender Jiggy's mentored. The first was none other than recent Philly signee Ilya Bryzgalov. The two pushed each other all throughout the '06-'07 season in Anaheim and eventually won the Stanley Cup. Giguere was the starting goalie during the final series.
After another solid '07-'08 season, Giguere's play dropped off in '08-'09. He then strained his groin early in '09-'10 and lost his starting position to Jonas Hiller. Jiggy wasn't happy about it - he said he "would rather retire than be a backup goalie". He was traded to the Maple Leafs at the end of January 2010. He played well, but injured his groin twice early in the 2010-11 season and didn't play for the rest of the year.
2011 Free Agency day saw him sign with the Avs. Even though he's technically the "backup goalie" in the depth chart, expect him to be challenging Varly for the top job all year. As he said in this interview, he thinks the goalies should work closely with each other, but given his history of disliking being the #2, he'll constantly be pushing Varly and raising the bar on what it takes to be the Avs starting goalie. Despite his recent injuries, he says he feels great. Plus, he's only 34 years old. If Tim Thomas still has some left in the tank at 37, it's a bit too early to be writing Jiggy off as "washed up". He'll be looking to rebound from his lack-luster past few seasons - just like everyone else on the team, he has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.
The Best of the Rest: AHL and Prospects
Prospects are more of Angelique's domain, and I don't proclaim to know all that much about the ins and outs of goaltending. But the Avs do have some very interesting young guns in their system that are worth mentionig.
First and foremost is Cedrick Desjardins. His nickname is "Cedrick the Entertainer", so that says something about him right there. He started in the QMJHL and was Sydney Crosby's teammate for two season with Rimouski Oceanic. However, he was traded to the Quebec Remparts for the '05-'06 season and ended up winning the Memorial Cup and the award for most valuable goalie that year. His head coach on that team? Some dude named Patrick Roy. He found himself splitting time between the Canadiens' ECHL and AHL affiliates for the next 2 years, then solely in the the AHL for next 3. During that time, he had a few stellar seasons, including one that won the 2008 ECHL Kelly Cup Championship (he was the tourney's MVP), and the '09-'10 Harry "Hap" Holmes Memorial Award for the lowest AHL GAA. He was also on the 2010 AHL Second All-Star Team. He was traded to the Tampa Bay Lighting in August of last year, and played 2 full games with them in '10-'11 - both wins with only one goal allowed each. The undrafted 26-year-old will be the starter in Lake Erie once his shoulder feels better, but if anything happens to Varly or Jiggy, Desjardins will be up "entertaining" the Avalanche fans instead.
Trevor Cann projects to be his backup. Most recently, the 22-year-old has had 2 winning season in the CHL, but has yet to prove himself at the AHL level. He's in the final year of his entry level contract with the Avs, and unless he can show that he's got some potential, he'll be released at the end of the year. Cann will have the prefect opportunity to do so though - with Desjardins out with a shoulder injury to start the year, he'll be the Lake Erie Monsters' starter and the first call-up if one of the Avs' netminders gets hurt.
The Avs also have a few strong prospects in Calvin Pickard (19, starting goalie for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL), Sami Aittokallio (19, playing for Ilves, a SM-liiga team - the highest league in Finland and the second best in Europe), Kieran Millan (22, a senior at Boston University), and Kent Patterson (22, a senior at the University of Minnesota). None of them will see time with the Avs this season, although Pickard and Aittokallio were both at training camp this year. However, all 4 of them will be AHL eligible for 2012-13 and could be battling Desjardins for the starting position.