Fluke Or Future: Questions Surround Varlamov as Capitals Season Starts

Brandan PfeiferContributor IOctober 8, 2009

WASHINGTON DC, DC - SEPTEMBER 23:  Semyon Varlamov #40 of the Washington Capitals skates against the Chicago Blackhawks during their preseason game on September 23, 2009 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. The Caps defeated the Hawks 6-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

After the the Caps were ousted from the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the eventual Champion, Pittsburgh Penguins, Capitals' goalie Semyon Varlamov announced that he would legally change the anglicized spelling of his name from Simeon to Semyon before the start of the 2009-2010 season; to avoid any confusion about its pronunciation. 

With that out of the way, only one question remains regarding the young Varlamov, who turned 21 in April: Is he the future of the Capitals between the pipes? Or was his performance in last season's playoffs merely a flash in the pan?

Varlamov became somewhat of a household name last year during the playoffs after replacing, a struggling, Jose Theodore early in the first round series against the New York Rangers.  Before his start in game two, Varlamov had only started a meager five games for the Caps in the regular season (by the way, he won four of those starts and lost one in overtime). 

The Capitals knew that they had a capable young goaltender to back-up Theodore, but Varlamov's performance in his 13 playoff starts showed the organization, and more importantly Coach Bruce Boudreau, that a goaltender battle was eminent in the Nation's Capital. 

Entering camp, Boudreau assured the media that the Job was still Jose Theodore's to lose; that he would be No. 1, and Varly would have to compete with Theo (and Calder Cup Champion Mike Neuvirth) for the job. However, there have been signs that the Capitals are at least giving Varlamov the oportunity to eventually steal the show. 

Last season, one major obstacle Varlamov faced was his inability to speak English.  Though the Capitals had many Russians on the team, the Caps Goalie Coach spoke no Russian. 

Enter new Capitals Goaltender Coach Arturs Irbe. Though Irbe's resume is probably impressive enough to garner the position on it's own, one would think the fact that he speaks fluent Russian might have played a role in the change.

Though Jose Theodore seemed to have emerged as the Capitals #1 out of camp (Neuvirth developed an undisclosed injury and was reassigned to Hershey), Coach Bruce Boudreau kept things up in the air right until the first puck dropped.  When asked after the morning skate in Boston by a reporter, "Goalie tonight?".  Boudreau simply responded, "Yes".

It would be Theodore who started that game against the Bruins, and it was Theodore who looked like a No. 1 goalie.  He faced 20 shots and allowed only one goal in the Capitals 4-1 victory.  However, Coach Boudreau quickly put an end to any assumption that Theo had won the job by starting Varlamov in the Capitals' 2nd and 3rd games against Toronto and Philadelphia.

In Toronto, Varlamov looked great...Until the third period, where he allowed three tallies by a desperate Mapleleafs team.  Yes, it was 6-1 Washington entering the third.  Yes, the defense all but called it in with a five-goal lead with 20 minutes to go. 

However, giving up three goals at the end of a contest, especially after making brilliant saves early, is unacceptable.  And unfortunately, for Varly, it happened again in Philly.

After getting his second straight nod, Varlamov stopped all ten shots he faced in the first period against a talented Flyer team.  However, in the second, he allowed four goals on only 14 shots, and was replaced by Theodore. Again, not all the goals allowed were his fault; the Caps were on the PK six times in the second period alone. 

However, as Bruce Boudreau explained after the game, Varlamov seems to give up goals in bunches, a sign of mental immaturity.  He did so against the Pens in Game Seven of last years playoffs, in his first game this year against the Leafs, and again, Tuesday night against the Flyers.

"One thing that's reared it's ugly head right now is they score in bunches on him," Boudreau said of Varlamov. "I think he gets down on himself, and we have to get him out of that."

Varlamov has shown that he is athletically gifted enough to be a solid starting goaltender in the NHL, but one thing the youngster must gain if he is to win the job in Washington is mental toughness.

He must develop a short memory and be able to forget about the previous play and focus on making the next one.  He has looked better so far this year in regards to his positioning, and working with Arturs Irbe for a season can do nothing but help develop his technique.  

Though many questions still surround Varlamov and the goaltender battle in Washington, one thing that often gets overlooked is the fact that young Semyon has played less than 25 NHL games.  Now that he is a permanent fixture on the Capitals' Roster, Varly will most definitely mature as an athlete and put up a strong fight for the No. 1 spot in Washington.

Looking ahead to Thursday, Theodore should get the nod in Goal against the Rangers, but don't count Varlamov out of the mix as the season progresses.