The Curious Case of Semyon Varlamov

Entering the 2010-11 NHL season, the Washington Capitals’ young goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth were expected to battle all season to prove which net minder would be capable of the heavy lifting – and carry the team through the playoffs. While Neuvi has set Caps’ Rookie Records in wins, and a career best in goals against – Varlamov has continued to spend more time off-ice than on.

A young goaltender with a leg problem is akin to a phenom pitcher with an shoulder issue, or a running back with re-occurring hamstring tightness. There could be many rationalizations of Varly’s injury history: weak hip groin/hip flexors from years utilizing Butterfly style net minding, getting run/hit when stretched, poor defensive positioning requiring unnatural movements. More concerning to me is the frequency of his injury, the length of time required to heal, and his in-ability to return to form post rehab. Without saying it, his durability must raise concerns within the club, as it was Neuvirth the team re-inked prior to the season’s start.

Since he was 19, Varlamov has yet to play a season free of injury:

2007-08: In international play, Varlamov was slated to play for Russia at the WJC U-20 tournament but could not play due to injury.

2008-09: Injured his knee in Bears training camp, missing “more than a month.” Re-injured his same knee 2 months into the season.

2009-10: Suffered a “lower-body” injury in December of 2009. Once re-couped, he missed more time re-injuring his groin and spraining his knee during his rehab stint.

2010-11: Placed on IR for a groin injury in October of 2010.  Was originally listed as day-to-day following a knee injury in late February, but is now expected to miss “7 to 10 days.”

Now nearly 23, Varly has yet to top 40 games in regular season & playoff appearances combined. More troubling is the fact that he’s never been able to successfully rebound from injury:

– During the 2008-09 season, he returned to compile a 2-1-1 record allowing 5 goals in each loss. And while he played well against the Rangers in the playoffs posting two shut outs, and allowing 3+ goals only once, his play against the Penguins was terrible (allowing an average of 3.86 GA for the series).

– After returning from injury during 2009-2010 season, Varly managed only three wins – and allowed 3+ goals in 7 losses (regulation & OTL) in his 10 games post injury.

Varly is like an Olympic gymnast: he has incredibly powerful lateral movement that often pushes him past the point that he’s trying to recover to; he’s always over-shooting his mark. Also like a gymnast, these explosive movements tend to cause injuries; knees, groins and other tendons/muscles in the legs. If you’ve ever watched Varly warm up, you know he’s incredibly flexible (I pull muscles just watching him). What it seems to me, anatomically, is that while he can make certain movements, he can’t slow his muscle acceleration withough pulling/stretching something. Muscles come in pairs: the hamstring is the smaller muscle to the quad; tricep to the bicep. If they can’t slow his explosive lateral movements, he’s going to pull his groin. A lot.

When you get stressed, you tend to fall back on what got you to where you are.  For Ovechkin, that means shooting and bodychecking.  For Hendricks, that’s fighting.  For Varly, that means being very aggressive and relying on his agility to get himself out of trouble. Varlamov is a very athletic goalie, it’s what got him to where he is, but he didn’t start with a solid foundation of technique like Neuvirth did.  He makes great acrobatic saves because he’s more aggressive by nature (not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself) and when he overcommits, he knows he can usually get back to make the save. Varly is a risk-vs-reward goalie. He gets to pucks and makes saves that 99% of goalies just can’t make. But he injures himself doing so.

He’ll always have better numbers than a more compact goalie like Neuvi, simply because of his athleticism. Better numbers, that is, in every category but ‘Games Played’.