During the NHL lockout, Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov brought in a substitute paycheck playing for the Kontinental Hockey League team in his hometown of Yaroslavl, Russia. As he looked around the local arena, or more specifically in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl dressing room, it often would hit him: They were all here, not so long ago.
On Sept. 7, 2011, when the Lokomotiv traveling party headed for the team's season opener in Minsk, Belarus, its plane crashed after takeoff from the Yaroslavl airport. The death toll included all 26 players aboard and 18 others. Two of the team's defensemen, Latvian Karlis Skrastins and Belarusian Ruslan Salei, played for the Avs before returning to Europe.
"I knew the whole team," Varlamov, 24, said this week at the Family Sports Center. "You always remember those guys. Going in the locker room could be tough. You can't forget. It was tough to see the city, how hard it hurt everyone."
Born in what is now known as Samara, Russia, Varlamov moved to Yaroslavl — about 250 miles northwest of Moscow — at age 13. He developed in the Lokomotiv program and played for the local team in the pre-KHL Russian Superleague for two seasons before joining the Washington Capitals organization in 2008. So his lockout employment with the reconstructed Lokomotiv franchise this season was a hockey homecoming, but it also had its sad undertones.
After returning to Colorado — he lives in downtown Denver — Varlamov is set to be in the Avs' net Saturday night when they open their 48-game season on the road against the Minnesota Wild. "I'm ready to play. I'm in good shape," he said.
Said Avalanche coach Joe Sacco: "Once he got over the jet lag coming back, he's looked sharp. He's focused and he's worked extremely hard."
Colorado has more invested in him than money, including draft choices and credibility. The Avs sent first- and second-round draft picks to Washington to acquire him in July 2011, then signed him to a three-year, $8.5 million deal. It all demonstrated faith in his ability to be transformed from an inconsistent and injury-prone enigma with the Capitals to a star in Colorado.
Previously, he showed flashes of breathtaking play in his 59 games over three seasons with the Capitals. Yet as he approached restricted free agency, Washington — which instead had used Michal Neuvirth as its 2011 playoff goalie — balked at paying Varlamov as a proven No. 1 goalie, something Colorado was willing to do. In fact, before the Avs made the moves to acquire and sign him, it seemed a possibility he would return to Yaroslavl and play for Lokomotiv in 2011-12, which could have put him on that ill-fated flight.
Last season, he was up and down. But his strong play early and especially late in the season kindled optimism that the Avalanche eventually will be vindicated in its judgment.
"Last year, I didn't play good enough for me," Varlamov said. "We wanted to play in the playoffs. I just say I want to play in the playoffs and make this team better."
For the season, he was 26-24-3 with a 2.59 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and four shutouts. Meanwhile, veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere, 35, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent the day the Avalanche traded for Varlamov, had a bit of a renaissance and showed he still could be effective in spot backup duty, or more. So the Avalanche seems justified in considering its goaltending set for the foreseeable future.
"He's a great guy," Varlamov said of Giguere. "He's a great goalie. He's won the Stanley Cup. He helped me on the ice, in the locker room, and getting ready for the game the next day. He's like my second goalie coach."
Giguere takes pride in Varlamov's development.
"I really, strongly believe that the goaltending relationship has to be strong," Giguere said. "We have to be friends. We have to help each other. And we have to compete. I have to push him. He has to push me. I can't make it easy on him. I have to make sure his work is honest. But I don't have to do much. He's a guy that naturally loves to compete, and that's something you can't teach."
At Washington, with several Russian teammates, including superstar Alex Ovechkin, and a major Russian-language subculture in the area, Varlamov at times might as well have been in Moscow. But when he got out of the Russian comfort zone, and tried to grasp what was going on or being said around him, he could be bewildered.
"That was the toughest part of my life," he said. "It's much easier to speak with the guys now. I understand everything."
Sacco smiled when that issue came up.
"What I've noticed about Varly most is his interaction now among his teammates and the coaching staff," he said. "I'm not quite sure it was as bad as we all thought. I could tell he understood a little more than what we were led to believe, but certainly I feel that the more comfortable he's gotten in his surroundings, we've seen the true Varly come out. He's got a good personality, a sarcastic type of personality."
Avalanche defenseman Shane O'Brien said the Yaroslavl tragedy affected Varlamov last season.
"It was hard for him coming to a new team, not knowing anyone, and then the unfortunate situation that happened in Russia ... it was all tough for him," O'Brien said. "He kind of struggled for a bit, but he worked hard and he was huge for us down the stretch. We have a great group of guys in here, and I think about halfway through the year he kind of realized that and started to feel more comfortable. And once you feel more comfortable with your teammates, that's going to help you on the ice."
Said Giguere: "He's more comfortable and, from the way the season went last year, he knows he's their man. He is this team's future, and I think that gave him a lot of confidence, and paved his way to be a leader on this team."
Does Varlamov feel pressure to live up to the Avalanche's faith in him?
"I think that's life," the Russian goalie said, shrugging. "Everybody feels the pressure, but you have to forget about the pressure, keep playing and do your job."
Terry Frei: 303-954-1895, email@example.com or twitter.com/TFOlympicAffair
Staff writer Mike Chambers contributed to this report.
On the plus side
A couple of reasons to be optimistic about Semyon Varlamov:
1.87: Goals-against average from Feb. 11 forward last season, in 22 games. He came on strong at the end of a season in which he averaged 2.59 goals against, ranking 27th among NHL goalies.
Zero. None. Zilch: Number of games missed last season with the Avs because of injuries. One of the reasons the Capitals let him go was his injury history.
Weight: 209 pounds
Drafted: The Washington Capitals made him the No. 23 choice in the NHL's 2006 draft. This is his fifth NHL season.
Strengths: Impressive reflexes and agility as a butterfly goaltender.
Weaknesses: Suspect puck handling and injury-prone history.
Reasons for optimism: After his strong play down the stretch last season for the Avalanche, he was impressive in helping Russia win the gold medal in the spring world championships and should hit the ground running after playing in Russia during the NHL lockout.
Reasons for skepticism: Often in the past, just when you think he's broken through ... bam, he's hurt. And the Capitals' ultimate refusal to anoint him their long-term answer and their willingness to trade him — albeit for first- and second-round draft choices — still makes you wonder.
Terry Frei, The Denver Post