Back in the summer of 2011, the Capitals couldn’t come to terms on a new contract with then-restricted free agent Semyon Varlamov and made the decision to part ways with the promising young goaltender.
Varlamov was looking for a commitment from a team that he would be their No. 1 goaltender, and a contract to match. But after he battled with groin, hip and knee injuries for several seasons, the Capitals weren’t prepared to do so, especially not with their pipeline of home-grown goaltending talent.
So Washington traded Varlamov, the 23rd overall pick in 2006, to the Colorado Avalanche for a first and second round selection in 2012. Those picks played out to be the No. 11 pick, which the Capitals used on Filip Forsberg, who is now with Nashville as part of the trade that acquired Martin Erat. And the second-round choice, 54th overall, was part of the trade package that brought Mike Ribeiro from Dallas to Washington in the summer of 2012.
On Saturday night, the Capitals will get a first-hand look at how the other side of that deal has worked out so far as Varlamov is slated to make his first start against his former team when the red-hot, undefeated Colorado Avalanche visit Verizon Center.
“I have lots of memories with Washington. They gave me the chance to play in the NHL, you know? So this was a special team for me,” Varlamov told Adrian Dater of the Denver Post after Colorado’s 2-0 win in Boston Thursday. “I have lots of friends there. I played with great players there, especially the Russian players — Fedorov, Semin, Ovechkin, Kozlov — I mean, that was a great time for me, and I’m so excited to be coming back and to play in the Verizon Center.”
In Colorado, Varlamov received the billing he was looking for as a top goaltender. He’s in the final year of the three-year, $8.5 million deal he signed with the Avalanche and appeared in 53 games in 2011-12 (26-24-3 with a .924 save percentage and 2.23 GAA) and then 35 in 2012-13 (11-21-3 with a .903 save percentage and 3.02 GAA).
Many wondered how Varlamov would fare when Hall of Famer Patrick Roy took over as Avalanche coach. But in the early stages of this season, Varlamov, 25, appears to be thriving under Roy and goaltending coach extraordinaire Francois Allaire. Through his first three starts this season, Varlamov is 3-0-0, having allowed just one goal in each contest and boasting a .967 save percentage.
“I’ve been working with Francois [Allaire] a lot. Me and [J.S. Giguere], we’re really happy to have him as goalie coach. He changed a couple things in my game. He wants me to play a little bit different,” Varlamov told Dater. “Right now, it works. We need to keep working with him, for sure. We have a long season — 78 games left. Of course, it’s a good start, we’re all excited. But we can’t stop playing after four games.”
Capitals Coach Adam Oates, looking to play off the history Varlamov has with the organization himself, said Michal Neuvirth will start against Colorado. Varlamov and Neuvirth competed for playing time when they were both with the Capitals and if that helps motivate the 25-year-old Czech netminder or his teammates, all the better.
“I said he was going to get a turn, it’s his turn. Probably against Varly I imagine. Go get ‘em Neuvy,” Oates said with a grin. “You’re looking for anything all the time. As soon as I saw Giguere played [in Boston], I would imagine it’s so Varly could play here. It’s all cat-and-mouse stuff all the time. If you’re looking for a spark — maybe it sparks us — great.”
Neuvirth himself is simply trying to perform his best so that he can earn more playing time. In a relief appearance against Calgary, Neuvirth stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced in the Capitals’ only win of the young season but hasn’t played since.
“You’ve got to practice hard and be prepared to come every day to the rink and give 100 percent in the practice,” Neuvirth said. “If you practice hard it’s going to end up good in the game.”