As the 2016-17 NHL season was about to get underway if you were asked to name a team with a goaltending battle, you most likely would’ve mentioned the Islanders and the competition between Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. If you are more than just a casual fan, you might have even pointed to Detroit with Jimmy Howard and Peter Mrazek, but after those more public battles, there has quietly been one taking place for the Avalanche.
In one corner, you have Semyon Varalmov. After putting up a career-best .927 save percentage and 41 wins (leading the Avs to the Central Division title) in 2013-14, he has regressed the last two years, finishing last year with a .914 save percentage and a 2.81 goals against average. In the other corner, you have Calvin Pickard, who has put up equally troubling numbers in limited playing time, finishing last year with a .922 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average. While most people agree that the defense in front of the net needs to improve, one of these guys also has to stop the puck.
Despite these numbers, both goalies are hungry and believe they deserve a shot at being the top guy. Varlamov is eager to prove himself after sitting on the Team Russian bench for every game they played in the World Cup. Pickard, who is a gold medalist from the Canadian World Championships, has statistically outplayed Varlamov over the last two seasons (except in number of games played) and is hungry after re-signing with the team in July.
While both players are ready to go, coaches remain unsure of how to use each one as the season unfolds, with new coach Jared Bednar saying he hasn’t decided how many starts each player will get, despite making it clear that there is a hierarchy in net, with Varlamov being the #1. With that in mind, Varlamov has played in five games so far this season, while Pickard has seen action in two.
Despite getting fewer opportunities, Pickard continues to statistically outplay Varlamov. Pickard is 2-0 (Varlamov is 2-3) with a GAA almost a third of a goal lower (2.49 vs. 2.82) and his save percentage is also better (.912 vs. .909) Varlamov, however, does have an impressive shutout against a potent Sharks hockey team to his credit.
Bednar has said the Avs need Varlamov to play like a top goalie and as the season progresses, the hope is that he will regain his form and avoid the off-ice distractions that probably impacted his play a year ago. In particular, the civil suit brought against him by his former girlfriend that ultimately went to trial and saw him awarded $126,000 in damages.
While he may have the top spot for now, there are those who feel that Pickard is the future in goal after putting up a .927 save percentage and a 2.46 GAA in 36 NHL starts over the last two years. Whether or not those stats are good enough to warrant the top spot, they are better than what Varlamov has put up and if Pickard continues to outplay him, Bednar will need to rethink his current hierarchy.