Semyon Varlamov has been a hard sell the last few seasons.
When he’s having a great stretch, he’s an unmovable brick wall for the Colorado Avalanche. The 29-year-old Samara, Russia native is collected, poised, and hard to shake out of position. He tracks well, he doesn’t make scrambling saves caused by poor reads, and he doesn’t float too far out of his crease.
Injuries have plagued him throughout his career, though, and he’s had stretches where his numbers just don’t add up with Vezina-calibre pedigree.
Last season was the perfect storm of poor luck for the netminder. He went down for nearly the entire season with injury, playing in just 24 regular season games before getting shut down, and added insult to injury with a well-below average performance during his healthy months.
One could assume that his significant hip problems plagued him prior to getting shut down last year, as he underwent not one, but two, separate procedures during the year in an attempt to get him back to full strength.
Even if the significant pain was hindering his performance, though, it’s hard to face down a new season with a goaltender who posted a .898 save percentage in all situations last year. There’s more than a bit of apprehension, and it’s somewhat well-deserved.
Goaltending is a tricky position to try and predict a future for, even more so when a player is coming off of the kinds of injuries that Varlamov has suffered. With that in mind, though, here’s a look at what fans may be able to expect next year:
A NEW COACH
Francois Allaire is one of the league’s most renowned names.
Brother to New York Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire - the name behind Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Talbot, and Antti Raanta - Francois has worked wonders with goaltenders during his tenure in the league.
Whether things just didn’t click with him and Varlamov or he was simply ready for a change of pace, though, Allaire won’t be returning to the team’s staff next season.
Instead, fans will get a chance to get to know Jussi Parkkila as their netminding consultant, providing a fresh perspective for the organization - if not necessarily for Varlamov himself.
The hiring of Parkkila reeks of a desire to please Varlamov, who has worked with the Finnish coach since his time with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl a decade ago.
While that may seem like a last-ditch effort, though, it certainly shouldn’t send fans into a panic. Parkkila deserves a lot of credit for who Varlamov is as a goaltender today - and while he could work on spending more time on his feet, it’s hard to deny that Varlamov has plenty of control to his game.
If the two are able to adapt the style that works so well for the Russian starter to keep him healthier for longer stretches, it’s easy to see a major bounce-back season. Having a familiar face around as the team looks to truly rebound may be exactly what’s needed in the crease.
The Avalanche couldn’t have been smarter when they opted to shut Varlamov down for the season, no ambiguity, in January of last season. They left no room for the possibility that he could be finished rehabbing by early or mid-spring, and there was no talk of him representing Russia at the World Championships in May.
The last time his status was updated, he was ‘feeling good’ in early April, and suggested that there was no doubt he’d be back to 100% by this coming month.
While any player is going to be as optimistic as possible when they give recovery updates, there’s little reason to believe that Varlamov won’t be exactly where he needs to come mid-September. The team saw him go under the knife not once but twice, repairing both hips in hopes that - using his words - ‘the problem is behind [him]’.
Varlamov suggested that his rehab process was slow this spring, with ‘all kinds of stuff to prepare [him]self for next season’. It’s worth considering that this includes cross-training such as yoga (Vinyasa is excellent for strengthening a goaltender’s core, and serves as a fantastic rehab for hip, groin, and core injuries) and other flexibility-related exercises in an attempt to ward off future pulls, strains, or tears.
When a goaltender puts up the numbers he did last season, and then gets a free pass to shut down his season and make sure that performance and injury don’t happen again, there’s little reason to believe he and his medical team didn’t pull out all the stops to prevent a repeat in the future.
Whether he altered his cross-training, his on-ice workout, his diet, or a combination of all three, fans should approach the coming season with a certain degree of confidence that something will finally have changed.