As July 1 nears, the Washington Capitals will be forced to make their decision on goalie Semyon Varlamov. Obviously, unlike with other restricted free agents, Varlamov’s being Russian complicates matters, as the KHL, under no obligation to respect NHL’s RFA rules, is always a threat to snatch home-grown talents back to the Motherland. As it were, today Sport-Express has been able to confirm that Varlamov is indeed a subject of several developments in Russia.
As I have posted earlier on my Twitter account, the current situation is as follows. Varlamov’s former club, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, currently holds his KHL negotiating rights. Lokomotiv, though, is relatively poor, and as sources within the team have told us, it currently has no realistic hope to negotiate with Varlamov. However, there is a team with a lot more financial clout that is very interested in acquiring Semyon’s rights from Lokomotiv. It is, unsurprisingly, SKA St. Petersburg, which is owned by Gazprom Exprot (the world’s largest exporter of natural gas), and whose former president, Alexander Medvedev, is also the president of the KHL.
According to sources within the KHL, SKA may offer Varlamov a multi-year deal worth in the vicinity of $4 million per year. SKA is notorious as the league’s top spender, and it had made waves last year by acquiring former San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who was subsequently cut from the team in mid-season. SKA is also, for all its lavish ways, a notorious under-achiever, having never won a championship, and this offseason, with a new coaching staff (which includes goalie coach Jussi Parkkila, Varlamov’s personal mentor), the pressure is higher than ever.
The President of Lokomotiv is not on great terms with SKA and is in no hurry to do them any favors, but he has stated that the team would sell Varlamov’s rights if the goalie himself expressed that wish. Which brings us to Semyon and his wishes. I have interviewed Varlamov today and the full transcript of the conversation can be found (in Russian) here.
“Yes, there is interest from other clubs,” Varlamov said, quickly clarifying that he means the KHL (no NHL team save for the Capitals can negotiate with him before July 1).
Varlamov, though, was also quick to say that the Capitals have expressed the interest in signing him as well.
“I am not in complete agreement with the offer that I have been receiving from Washington in the past several months,” Varlamov said, but “negotiations are still in progress and the club is interested in me.”
With the amount of money being thrown around in Russia, though, one can’t help but wonder whether the Caps can (or will) even approach SKA’s reported offers. Varlamov, though, insists that advancing his NHL career is the top priority for him.
“My chances of staying in the NHL are high,” he said. “I would really like to sign a deal in America. Yes, even if it’s for less money than what I am offered in Russia.”
When pressed on how big a pay cut he would be willing to take,Varlamov replied: “Not a really huge one.”
It should also be noted that while the Capitals likely are offering Varlamov something close to what they have signed Michal Neuvirth for ($1.15 million a year for two years), this money should not be compared to KHL’s possible offers straight up. In Russia, Varlamov would be the beneficiary of a much smaller tax rate (13 percent for residents), but on the other hand KHL deals are not guaranteed. A team is always free to renegotiate a contract, even in mid-season, or to rip it up altogether. This is exactly what happened to Nabokov, who, according to some reports, was compelled to take a pay cut after not performing up to expectations. The pressure on Varlamov to deliver immediately would be immense. He would, however, have the starting job from the get-go.
Varlamov, however, isn’t prepared to concede the same job with the Caps.
“Am I really such a bad goaltender?” he asked me rhetorically. “I don’t think I am the backup right now… It’s a new year and everyone’s chances are the same. Look at Tim Thomas, who rode the bench the previous season but then won everything there was to win.”
Semyon has also reaffirmed that playing in the NHL was his childhood dream, and he doesn’t consider it accomplished yet.
“After I win the Stanley Cup, the Vezina Trophy and the Calder Trophy, then I will say to myself that my career has been successful,” he said.
The recent departure of goalie coach Arturs Irbe will play no part in his decision, Varlamov said, adding that his English has greatly improved over the last three years and that he is comfortable communicating with non-Russian-speaking coaches.
He refused to rule out signing a long-term deal in Russia, however, saying that it won’t be tantamount to giving up his NHL ambitions, but as we ended our conversation Semyon said: “Hopefully, we’ll be seeing each other soon.”
(At this point I should add that I am not planning a trip to Russia this summer.)
Slava Malamud is a reporter for Russia’s Sport-Express.