For the past several seasons, the home crease at the Pepsi Center has belonged to Semyon Varlamov - whenever health allowed it. Since joining the Colorado Avalanche in 2011, the Russian-born netminder has been a mainstay, starting more than 350 regular season games. The only netminder in team history with a more prolific record is Patrick Roy; no other goaltender has come close.
Now, though, there’s a belief among many fans that Varlamov’s time with the Avalanche is nearing an end thanks to the addition of two higher-end backups this past summer.
The 30-year old goaltender is in the final year of his contract, and right now it seems like the team isn’t inclined to re-sign him before he hits the free agency market on July 1.
Just before the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Avalanche traded for Philipp Grubauer, a career backup who played a big part for the Stanley Cup winning Washington Capitals last season. He’s three-and a half years younger and a lot cheaper, so common belief was that Grubauer was brought in to take over for Varlamov.
Add to that the fact that the Avs also added Pavel Francouz - a 28-year old who has been the best goaltender in the KHL for the past two seasons - and it seemed like the writing was on the wall for Varly. The team was likely to go with more of a goaltender committee when the year was over, with Grubauer eventually taking over as the starter.
Things played out a little differently when the season started, though. Varlamov started two thirds of the team’s games through October and November, and looked to statistically be far and away the better goalie.
In his eight October starts, Varly put up a league best .950 sv% while drastically outplaying Grubauer. With another nine starts in November, Varly’s play dropped off, but his .905 sv% in the month was still a big step up from the .895 produced by his backup.
Then came December, and things fell apart. The playing time evened out, and neither goalie looked very good - mirroring the rest of the team in a somewhat-lengthy slump. Grubauer was starting to play a little better than Varlamov, though — and with an illness and some lingering injuries for the long-time number one, there are a lot of fans who believe it’s now time to pass the torch.
Since the start of December, Grubauer has been the better goalie, and while he is closing the gap, Varlamov still has the advantage when you look at the season-long numbers.
2018-19 Colorado Avalanche Goaltending
The one statistic that many fans might not be familiar with — but that the goalie mafia will insist you should be paying attention to — is GSAA, or Goals Saved Above Average.
It’s similar to baseball’s WAR, and it is called “GSAA” – Goals Saved Above Average. You take the league’s average save percentage and apply it to the amount of shots a particular goalie has faced. You get a number of goals that the average goalie in that league would have surrendered if they faced the same number of shots as the goaltender in question. That number gets compared to the number of goals surrendered by that goaltender, and a plus/minus is created. If a goalie is in the positive, that is how many goals they have saved compared to a league-average goalie. If they are in the negative, then it is safe to assume that they are performing worse than how a league-average goaltender would perform in the same situation.
Here is a look at the GSAA this season from each starting NHL goaltender:
Even with the horrendous December, Varly is still performing better than league average over the course of the season. The same can’t be said for Grubauer.
Here is a look at the goalies that don’t make the 850 minutes played threshold of the above graph:
Grubauer has performed below league average, and has allowed nearly 10 goals more than expected — a huge percentage, given that he’s only given up 54 goals this season.
Recency bias can be strong, and Varlamov has been the worse of the team’s two goaltenders recently — but Grubauer has been performing below expectation all season, and it’s not as if he’s trending in the right direction.
While it might not be popular opinion, the numbers make it clear that Semyon Varlamov is still the goaltender that gives the Avalanche the better chance to win every night. If Colorado is serious about turning the season around an making a push towards a second consecutive playoff birth, it might have to be Varlamov that gets them there.
That is, of course, only if Varlamov can stay healthy — something that we shouldn’t count on. He has missed the last few games with a lower body injury, so for right now the spotlight is on Philipp Grubauer.
Maybe a run of consecutive games is what Grubauer needs to find the form that helped him challenge Brayden Holtby in Washington last season. If he continues to play the way he has, though, Varlamov should be right back in the role as starter as soon as he’s healthy.
For further data on the two goaltenders - and all the goaltenders around then league - check out these amazing profiles on Sean’s Tableau.