During the thirty days of September, I'll be trying to preview the seasons of thirty players currently under contract with the Washington Capitals and who have a good chance of spending some time in red, white, and blue this season. Advanced stats are given from behindthenet.ca ranked against other players at the same position--from today on, forward, defense, or goalie--in the same organization, at 5-on-5, unless otherwise noted. Age is on opening night, and linemates are those listed at even strength at 10% or greater. Today, my final edition--Semyon Varlamov)
Semyon Varlamov: age 22, 6'1", 183 pounds, catches left.
Contract: entry-level, $62.5k in AHL, $765k in NHL with $822k cap hit, RFA in 2011, per Capgeek.
2009-2010 raw stats:
NHL: 26 GP, 15-4-6, 2.55 GAA, .909 SV%, 2 SO
Playoffs: 6 GP, 3-3, 2.41 GAA, .908 SV%, 0 SO
AHL: 3 GP, 3-0-0, 1.95 GAA, .933 SV%, 0 SO
(Photo courtesy Caps Snaps)
Semyon Varlamov: the Capitals' #1 prospect and #2 in all of hockey? Maybe. It's sort of hard to imagine Varlamov as a prospect, still, but that's the nature of goalies.
Some of today's best goalies emerged as bona-fide starters around this age. Martin Brodeur was a 22-year old phenom, taking his Devils team to the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals and to the Stanley Cup the following season. Henrik Lundqvist had the first of his now 5-straight 30-win, under-2.50 goals against average, and above-.910 save percentage seasons as a 23-year old the year after the lockout (earning himself a Vezina nomination in the process). Tuukka Rask had a sensational season in 2009-2010 as a 23-year old. It appears that if Varlamov is to fulfill his Hockey's Future-given potential, his first chance is this season.
On the other hand, Miikka Kiprusoff emerged as a 27-year old. Tomas Vokoun was 26 before he became Nashville's starter. Jonas Hiller was 27. Ryan Miller was 25. The common thread here is that each was supposed to be the starter of the future. With Varlamov, we don't know that for sure. Varlamov is facing stiff competition from Michal Neuvirth, much more competition than any of these other goalies faced (although, in fairness, Kiprusoff was traded from San Jose to Calgary due to the Sharks' goalie glut). Varlamov could still become a starter later on, but if he doesn't perform very well, he could find himself starting for another team.
This is a big year for Varlamov, and not just because his play this season will more-or-less determine the length and value of his next contract. The big question mark with Varlamov, of course, is his durability. Last season and the season before that he had two different long-term injuries (in the sense of a month or two, not half a season), and he's already been scratched to rest a minor injury this preseason (last night against Boston). When Varlamov has played, though, he has been very, very good. His even-strength save percentage this past season was eighth among goalies who played at least ten games. His overall save percentage wasn't stellar, but that's a function of his third-worst shorthanded save percentage in the league. Don't expect that to continue. He's also actually been able to post shutouts for the Capitals, with four already in 51 career games played (29 in the playoffs). Considering how the other Caps goalies have fared, and considering Varlamov's athleticism, flexibility, and reaction speed, I think Varlamov has tons of upside. He is rated an 8.5B, after all.
The most heartening thing for me is that Varlamov, unlike Neuvirth, has already shown he can zero in and semi-steal a playoff series at the NHL level. Throw in that the team flat out wins when Varlamov is starting and healthy and I think he's the go-to guy in net. Much like Holtby and Neuvirth last year in Hershey--Neuvirth was hurt, so Holtby got more starts and posted better numbers, but Neuvirth was still the playoff goalie--Varlamov should play well enough to keep the playoff starter's job. All indications are that Varlamov is good enough to take the Capitals to a Stanley Cup. He's more experienced than Neuvirth, and at this stage of their careers, simply better.
34 GP, 20-10-4, 2.48 GAA, .919 SV%, 3 SO. After that, playoff starter--maybe 18/24 GP, 11-7, 2.62 GAA, .920 sv%? Whatever happens, I don't think the Caps' goaltending is a point of weakness any longer. While the two goalies are inexperienced, they have talent, which trumps experience six days a week.