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Varlamov v. Grubauer: why there doesn’t need to be a competition

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Avalanche best served without need to name a starter in net

Colorado Avalanche v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Colorado Avalanche fans aren’t in quite the same boat that some of the teams around the NHL have been in over the last handful of years.

When it comes to goaltending, they’ve got a starter. Not only is Semyon Varlamov an NHL-caliber goaltender, but he’s one that’s proven capable of remaining reasonably consistent during his time in Denver.

While they haven’t had to go through quite the Edmonton goaltending carousel, though, their deal to bring Philipp Grubauer into the mix at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft immediately caused the hot takery to fly.

Some want to see Grubauer and Varlamov battle it out. Others want to see Grubauer take over as starter completely, giving him the chance to spread his wings with Varlamov relegated to safety net instead of de facto number one.

The best situation, though, may be the one with the least conflict. Instead of insisting that one or the other clearly hold the defined role as the team’s number one, the best situation may just be to treat them as equals (or near-equals) from the get-go; it’s not the hot topic debate everyone wants, but it may very well be just what the team needs.

WHAT WE KNOW

The Avalanche made it clear when they picked up Grubauer at the draft that they did so in hopes that it would relieve some of the pressure being felt by Varlamov to play a heavy number of games.

General manager Joe Sakic confirmed that the goal was to keep Varlamov to a much more manageable 50 to 60 games, giving him and Grubauer a much more even split than had been seen around the league from workhorse goaltenders like Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist, Freddie Andersen, or Carey Price and their respective backups.

The overall feeling of the press availability following the announcement of the trade was that Sakic and his management staff understood how heavy the workload had become for goaltenders in today’s game, and that they wanted to address that properly with how they handled their tandem.

Assuming that Sakic and head coach Jared Bednar are on the same page and plan to stick to what they said over the summer, it’s not unreasonable to assume we’ll see the newcomer in net for a little over 30 games this year, with Varlamov playing somewhere around 50, and it’s not unreasonable to assume those splits will be fairly evenly-distributed.

SEMYON VARLAMOV

2017-18 season: 51 GP, .920 SV% (all situations), 24-16-6 record

Varlamov ended up playing the ideal number of games last year, appearing in 51 contests over the course of the 82-game season.

Of course, he still managed to get injured, which doesn’t bode well for asset management working in the team’s favor to keep him in net and healthy all year.

The plus side? He made fewer starts through the early portions of the season, with Jonathan Bernier appearing in 12 games to Varlamov’s 25 through December 29th. It’s possible that working with Parkkila is what caused his statistical bounce-back, but it’s also strongly worth considering that he bounced back to a .920 save percentage after finishing with a sub-.900 the year prior because his workload was better managed.

PHILIPP GRUBAUER

2017-18 season: 35 GP, .923 SV% (all situations), 15-10-3 record

Grubauer really showed he was more than just a heavily-sheltered backup when he managed to hold down the fort down the back stretch of the season, assuming starting responsibilities when Braden Holtby’s numbers started to slip.

Although his regular season performance was excellent, though, his brief postseason debut still showed he has a ways to go before he’ll be able to carry a team deep into the playoffs. The Capitals made it to the playoffs thanks to him, no doubt—but they won the Stanley Cup because they still had Holtby, as well. And once their starter was rested, he was able to show why the team kept him around as their number one.

WHAT WE EXPECT

It wouldn’t be an NHL season for Varlamov if he didn’t end up with a lower body injury, as frustrating as that sounds.

The hope was that bringing on Jussi Parkkila to help his old pupil this past summer would give the Russian-born goaltender a chance to properly rehab his injuries, then strengthen his muscles and improve his flexibility enough to make it through the 2017-18 campaign without incident.

Maybe he’s got Justin Verlander syndrome, and he’s so naturally inclined to be physically inflexible that playing such a demanding position has taken its toll early. Maybe his body is just destined to show wear and tear faster than others. No one outside of the team and his doctors would be able to confirm either theory.

The bottom line, though, is that he’s as likely to get hurt as he is to have a phenomenal season when he’s healthy, so the Avalanche undoubtedly treat that as their starting point heading into the season.

Like last year, though, they’ve got a good enough number two for things not to necessarily fall off when Varlamov does get hurt.

The modern-day NHL is actually a surprisingly effective place for a guy like Varlamov, and the Avalanche seem . to be capitalizing on that.

Even 10 years ago, having a guy who was NHL-caliber but often injured was the kiss of death for his career. 20 years ago and beyond? Good luck finding a team to keep you on at the NHL level for more than pocket change.

Teams like the Anaheim Ducks have shown in recent years, though, that you can treat both of your goaltenders like valuable assets without making it a competition. Take last season in Anaheim, for example: John Gibson and Ryan Miller were both injured at one point or another, but the team didn’t ride either into the ground when they were both healthy. As a result, they each finished with a .926 save percentage or better, there were few storylines wondering who was ousting whom, and both goaltenders are returning next season seeming perfectly content with how things went.

For the Avalanche, that’s the ideal scenario for next year. And given how they’ve approached things so far, it’s likely the way they hope things will shake out, anyway.