As the offseason begins, we’ll take a player-by-player look at the year that was for the Washington Capitals.
Contract status: $821,667 in 2010-11, restricted free agent this summer.
The year that was: For yet another season, Semyon Varlamov was held back more by injuries than anything else. Varlamov arrived in Washington a month before the Capitals opened their official training camp to work out and better prepare himself physically for the rigors of the upcoming season. But that extra time wouldn’t prevent him from suffering another groin muscle strain in training camp that led to his placement on injured reserve.
Varlamov missed the majority of the first two months of the season, appearing in only two of 22 games at the start of the campaign. Those brief stints came in mid-October as Varlamov attempted to return from the injury, but it only aggravated the problem and forced the Capitals to shut him down longer. The prolonged absences forced Washington to rely on rookie Michal Neuvirth, who seemed largely unfazed by the heavy workload until he suffered a few injuries of his own.
Despite the layoff, Varlamov would win four straight when he returned to the lineup. When Neuvirth hurt his groin in late December, it gave Varlamov an opportunity for five consecutive starts — including the Winter Classic — a stretch in which he went 4-0-1 . But the year rapidly was less about a true competition between the goaltenders and more about which could stay healthy longer. As the season progressed it appeared as though Varlamov had regained his equal footing when it came to the battle for the Capitals’ top spot in goal, but then the young Russian was sidetracked by one more injury.
Varlamov injured his knee during a morning skate on Long Island in late February, requiring minor surgery. He had been scheduled to start against the Islanders but the injury put Neuvirth, eager to erase the memory of a 6-0 loss to the Rangers the night before, back in net. Varlamov missed 14 more games with the knee injury, and although he started three contests out of the eight remaining games in the regular season, it was already clear he was not the first choice to start the postseason.
Despite his previous experience from the past two years of playoff action, Varlamov did not make an appearance in the Capitals’ nine postseason games this spring. When Washington fell behind against Tampa Bay, Coach Bruce Boudreau considered putting him in but ultimately did not and stuck with Neuvirth.
Looking ahead: At some point, something has to give in the Capitals’ stable of young goaltenders. Varlamov is the only one of the top three – along with Neuvirth and Braden Holtby – not under contract with Washington for the 2011-12 season, and it’s possible the Capitals could use his upside and the right to negotiate with the young Russian as leverage or part of a trade this offseason.
Varlamov will likely be looking for a raise in his next contract, and despite his history of injuries, there remains a very real possibility that he can be a No. 1 netminder in the NHL. The biggest question mark is his durability, as he has been unable to make it through an entire NHL season without missing significant time due to injury.
On the day of the team’s exit interviews, Varlamov said in Russian that he would like to stay in the NHL and with the Capitals. (His Russian agent said previously that KHL teams were pursuing Varlamov, not that General Manager George McPhee was swayed by those comments at all.)
McPhee has many decisions to make this offseason, but any moves he where the goaltending depth is concerned will be spotlighted. Washington’s cadre of young talent in that position has been a source of strength for the organization, but at some point, the Capitals may need to use it to strengthen other areas of the team. Meanwhile, Varlamov’s goal appears to still be becoming a starter in the NHL, and it’s possible another team presents a better opportunity for him to do so.