Colorado Avalanche Goaltender Semyon Varlamov is Back to Bad Habits


Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov is displaying some bad habits which are hurting the team.

I’ll start the post with some positive news! The Colorado Avalanche have been playing good hockey lately. They have outshot their opponent in each of their last 4 games, and gone 2-2 in those games. The only thing that has prevented them from entering New Jersey on a 4-game winning streak is their goaltending.

And that’s why Reto Berra got the call against the New Jersey Devils. Varlamov, who Patrick Roy plainly stated, “Needs to be our best player” the morning before Varly got yanked, has been anything but. In fact with goalies having played more than 10 games this year, Varlamov is dead last in the league in save percentage at a paltry .887%.

However there is good and bad news when it comes to Varlamov’s play. The bad news is he has returned to the bad habits he had in Washington, when he used to rely on reflexes and instincts instead of positioning and solid fundamentals to make saves. The good news is that habits can be changed.

What it Takes to be a Successful Goalie

Fans often get frustrated when a player shoots a puck directly into the chest of the goaltender, especially on a good scoring opportunity, as it is seen as an easy save. However, the opposite is most often true. The best way a goalie can make a save is with his chest because it means he is in the perfect position. This is harder then it sounds though.

First, the goalie must read where the shot is coming from. Jonathan Quick often gets criticized for this as one of the most aggressive goalies in the league. He often comes out and challenges whoever has the puck as soon as they enter the zone. This means one cross-ice pass leaves him with a ton of ground to cover to get in position again.

This has often been one of Varlamov’s strengths, and the reason he moves to challenge shooters so well — he has great hockey sense and anticipation as to when the shot is coming.

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Secondly, the goalie must make sure he has a proper angle on the puck. This is extraordinarily difficult, even for guys who have been playing hockey their entire life. To get the proper angle the goalie has to constantly be making minute adjustments as skaters move through the zone with the puck. And if there is a pass they must move with one powerful push to the new angle. But overslide even a bit and you leave a net wide open on the side they just came from.

Additionally, establishing a correct angle is even more difficult for goalies like Varlamov who often find themselves outside the crease. The crease is their protractor in the net. Every goalie can look down (they never have time to actually look down — its mostly a use of peripheral vision) and tell by the curve of the crease where exactly the net is behind him. If a goalie is out of the crease, his guide is gone, making it very hard to judge the angle.

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Third, when a goalie butterflies, he wants to be upright and tight to take up as much of the net as possible.

In an ideal world the goalie has cut the angle enough so that his pads are sealing the bottom, his blocker and catcher will cover mid height shots, and his shoulders are in line with the crossbar for the shot. Goalies get in trouble quickly when their upper body is off balance while they are trying to make a save; it makes it harder to control their pushes, and leads to pucks leaking through when they should be swallowed in the chest. At the same time if a goalie is “loose” with his bottom half, he risks giving up goals through the five-hole.

Lastly, a goalie, in a perfect world, never wants to be moving when he makes a save.

If they are moving, hopefully they’re moving straight out at the shooter because that means they already have the shot read and their angle is on. But trying to make a save off a shot from a shooter — who is moving — on a puck –which most likely had a slight change in angle before the shot (such as a toe pull) — is hard enough. Add the goalie’s own movement into the mix and things become chaos. In addition, if a goalie is sliding sideways when he makes a save, it makes it that much harder to recover for a rebound.

Varlamov’s Bad Habits That Are Hurting the Team

Let’s take a quick look at the first two goals from the Ottawa Senator’s game Semyon Varlamov was yanked from 6 days ago:

On the first goal Varlamov wasn’t even set, which is one of the most frustrating things for a coach to watch. The puck is in the D zone, and the opposing team controls it. Varlamov needs to be ready for a shot there, plain and simple.

In addition, Varlamov is standing way back on his goal line, assumingly because he is anticipating a pass and wants to shorten the ground to cover.  The last thing that stands out about this goal is his bad form on the butterfly, which as we talked about should be high and tight, as so:

Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

His pads aren’t yet completely down yet in this picture, but you can see his stick is on the ice and he has his whole upper-body tucked in tight. When Varlamov is in good position (and there’s not a terrible defensive breakdown happening), this is what a save should look like.

The second goal is a bit trickier, and definitely less Varlamov’s fault then it is Gormley’s fault for not lifting the stick. Varlamov does a good job sliding across and making himself big, but he loses his form on the slide. Now Varlamov is on his goal line here so he doesn’t have that far to go. Being a great side to side goaltender, he is perfectly capable of making the slide over in the tight butterfly. The shot is close enough in that there’s not much room to go. Instead he loses his form and tries to regain it, but there’s simply not enough time in the NHL to play that way.

The Glory Days

Now we have some fun with some old Varlamov highlights, (note I don’t condone the music choice in the video — it’s safe for work, just very blahh).

If you want a picture perfect example fast forward to 1:32 in the video.  It’s another cross ice pass, albeit a bit higher out, but Varlamov does everything we talked about up above perfectly. He reads the shot is coming from the one timer, he slides over to the correct angle in one motion, seals everything up tight, and then makes the save while stationary.

The whole video is worth a watch (if only for the fun), but you’ll notice that Varlamov is incredibly good at sliding across the crease while staying tight and in control the entire time. This year he is losing his butterfly each time he slides and then trying to recover quickly when he reaches his destination.

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For one last example of what Varlamov did so well fast forward to 1:52 in the video. On each shot in that segment he butterflies tightly, quickly recovers, and gets set to butterfly well for the next shot.

The Colorado Avalanche Need Old Varly

I’m very impressed by the way the Avalanche have been playing lately. But with their talented skaters and shooters they should win nearly every game they stay even on shots with. I’m not asking –nor do the Avalanche need — Varlamov to repeat his stellar 2013-14 season. But he needs to be solid, plain and simple.