The home stretch has arrived. With the season set to kick off for the Avalanche at home on October 2nd, we have a fair idea of what the team is going to look like this season.
We all know what happened last year: the defense was atrocious, goaltender Semyon Varlamov did about all he could to help remedy that situation, and the Avalanche were dead last in just about every relevant category on their way to the first overall pick.
So what’s in store for them for the 2013-14 season? How do the Avalanche look compared to last year and most importantly, what will they do this upcoming season? Part three of this final preview series will take a look at the goalies.
We’re going to take a look at the starting situation, the backups (both on the roster and in the minors), assigning a grade from 1-5 for both as well as for the group as a whole. Let’s get to it.
Depending on who you talk to, the Avalanche may already have their franchise goaltender. Those people are convinced that the 25-year-old Varlamov is the man, the present and future of the Avalanche between the pipes.
Others are not so sold and the stats would seem to back them up. He went 11-21-3 last year with a 3.02 GAA and .903 save percentage – a far cry from “franchise” numbers. But take into account that Varlamov was playing behind the worst defense in hockey, the team that allowed the most goals per game and was near the bottom in shots against per game.
Varlamov is obviously talented; he’s a former first round pick of the Washington Capitals and was battling for their starting spot before a glut of talented goalies led to his trade. He’s capable of things like this from time to time:
Consistency will be the name of the game for Varlamov and he’s struggled to find it since coming to Denver. He’s been pulled in favor of veteran backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere for stretches, something that certainly gives credence to his detractors case. But he’s still just 25. He’s still learning how to be the man and how to carry a team on his back. Not to mention the above fact that he played behind a terrible team. Unless you’re Dominik Hasek, chances are you aren’t going to transform a bad team in any significant way.
This is going to be his make or break year, though. The Avalanche are much better up front with the selection of Nathan MacKinnon, the re-acquisition of Alex Tanguay, and better overall depth up front. The defense isn’t a whole lot better but there is talent on the way and another year for this group together can only stand to help.
From there, it’s up to Varly. He has to take the next step; make the Avalanche a better team even if he can’t make them a playoff team. He needs to show that he gets it and take the next step forward.
If he can do that, the Avalanche just might have their franchise netminder after all.
Backing up Varlamov in Colorado is a veteran with a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy under his belt. Not a bad resume for a backup. Giguere is near the end of the road – he’s 36-years-old – but can hold down the fort when Varly needs a rest or a stretch to get his head straight. He was a decent 5-4-4 last year with a 2.84 GAA and .908 save percentage. He’s a positionally sound butterfly goaltender who uses his size to cover the bottom of the net well. He’ll be in the same role this year: mentor Varlamov, help him along as best he can, and give him a breather when he needs it. There are far worse backup situations than the Avs.
Behind him and likely manning the nets at least on a part time basis in Lake Erie, Colorado’s AHL affiliate, is Sami Aittokallio. Despite possessing an icy stare, he’s a decent AHL goaltender and nothing more, posting a 3.00 GAA and sub-.900 save percentage.
If someone from the AHL is going to get the call, it’ll likely be Calvin Pickard. The Avs second round pick in 2010 (49th overall), he’s been honing his skills with the monsters for the better part of two years, getting the majority of the starts last year. He’s the future of the Avs (if Varly doesn’t pan out) and the Avalanche will always at least have an eye towards the talented 21-year-old. He’ll likely get another year of seasoning with the Monsters this season before having a chance to crack the big club next season.
As stated earlier, this is the make or break year for Varlamov. He’s not going anywhere necessarily but if he struggles this year to establish himself as an impact player for the Avalanche, the door will be open for Pickard next year if he continues to progress in Lake Erie.
Varlamov will be given every chance to succeed and theoretically should see his atrocious defense regress at least somewhat towards the mean which should benefit him by proxy. The team needs to help him out by cutting down the number of shots he sees but Varlamov is going to have to show that he’s capable of giving his team a chance to win every night he’s in net.
The potential is high (it always has been) and while a playoff push isn’t something to expect, if Varlamov can help make the Avalanche more competitive and a tough play each night, the team can rest easy knowing the future is secure.
The alternative? Let’s hope we don’t get to that point.
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