- Craig Custance
DENVER -- This summer, Patrick Roy went to see Semyon Varlamov in Montreal while the Colorado Avalanche starting goalie was training with teammate Jean-Sebastien Giguere and new Avs goalie coach Francois Allaire. Varlamov was coming off a disappointing season in which he finished with a career-low .903 save percentage. His 3.02 goals-against average was the worst of any goalie who played in at least 30 games. But if you talk to his teammates, he was as much a victim of the team around him than anything.
"We gave up so much, so many chances. Whether it's back doors or whether it's second chances," center Paul Stastny said Wednesday. "It's tough to look at the way we played."
The Avalanche vow to be better, but there's also room for growth from the 25-year-old goalie. Right away in Montreal, Roy suggested a change in the setup of Varlamov's glove. It was a little low, and Roy believed it left him vulnerable to shots up high.
"The puck is coming from the ice to the top of the net, and I think it's better to have your glove cover more space," Roy said when we chatted following Tuesday's practice.
The first goalie Roy saw make that change was Dominik Hasek. Then he did the same thing. Now he's passing it on to Varlamov. That's one small example of the coming changes in Varlamov's game and it's the only one either coach and goalie would share.
Varlamov spent considerable time this summer with veteran coach Allaire, including a week in Switzerland training with European goalies, along with NHL guys such as Jonas Hiller and Ben Scrivens. Then another two weeks in Montreal with Giguere.
Typically, Varlamov starts skating in early August, but this summer he started much earlier to be ready for these camps with his new goalie coach. It's where the transformation started and where it continues.
"There are a couple things that I can't mention to you obviously that he needs to work on, and he's working on it," Roy said.
During one of their first meetings, Varlamov expressed his biggest concern to Roy. "I just want to be consistent," Varlamov told his coach.
After that, Roy talked about his view on what it takes to be consistent as an elite NHL goalie, a perspective few other head coaches can share. And then, he turned him over to the goalie coach he trusts completely. Roy said he'll be there when Varlamov needs him, but the improvement will come more from his hard work and the adjustments by Allaire.
"He's in Francois' hands," Roy said. "Francois will take care of him. They work really well together. I think Varly likes what's going on. I like the way he's been working."
Here are 19 other observations from my recent stop at Avalanche training camp:
2. Both Colorado goalies have expiring contracts after the season, with Giguere an unrestricted free agent and Varlamov a restricted free agent. A big season from Varlamov would go a long way in re-establishing himself as the long-term option in Colorado. So far, Roy likes everything he's seen, and hopes the pressure on Varlamov to earn his next deal isn't something the young man focuses on.
"Honestly? I never looked at contracts," Roy said. "I hope it's not something he also looks at. I think Varly wants to perform."
3. Varlamov's English has improved dramatically since his days in Washington, and it has helped his comfort level in the Avalanche dressing room. Communication hasn't been an issue at all, Roy said. "His English is better than mine," Roy said.
4. The huge question mark in Denver is the defense, and Roy said improvement is going to come from an overall team effort. He wants his forwards aggressively backchecking, and mentioned tracking as the biggest difference we'll see from last season. He wants his defense controlling the game, constantly communicating with forwards so they know exactly which opposing player to take.
"Like a quarterback, you can see the whole field," Colorado defenseman Matt Hunwick said. "When the forward is coming back, he's busting his butt coming back. He might not know about the guy over his shoulder on the weak side. It's on the defenseman to talk and let him know where we want him."
5. Roy mentioned the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings as teams whose forwards are particularly good in this area of the game, and it starts with the stars. Roy pointed out that if Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are backchecking, how can others not follow? That's been pointed out to Stastny, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly. "If they back check, it's going to be quite something," Roy said.
6. One thing that's jumped out to his players about Roy's coaching is his knowledge of the game in all three zones. And if he doesn't know something, he obsesses until he gets it right. At one point, Stastny asked him a question about a neutral-zone play and Roy didn't immediately have an answer.
"He came back the next day and was talking about how he couldn't sleep. He was thinking about it the whole time," Stastny said. "I asked the question, I think it stumped him a little bit. He came back and we both had the same answer. Moving forward, we know what we're going to do."
7. It's preseason, so everyone is happy, but so far the players like the mix of encouragement and attention to detail that Roy provides. In a preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings, Roy came into the dressing room after the second period and lifted a team that needed it.
"He empowers us to be better players and be a better team," Duchene said. "He got us over the hump." The Avalanche scored two goals in the third and O'Reilly notched the game-winner in overtime.
8. If he doesn't like the focus of the team, Roy also doesn't hesitate to let them know. After the Avalanche won two consecutive preseason games, the focus wasn't there during a morning skate before the third. During a 2-on-1 drill, he let the team know he wouldn't tolerate their inattention to detail. That will be the biggest challenge for him: getting a young team to consistently focus on the task at hand, especially after a little success. "It's easy to develop bad habits. That's probably the easiest thing in the game," Roy said.
9. Roy has set up the Avalanche's top lines and doesn't anticipate being a guy who makes many changes there unless he has to. The most interesting line is the trio of Duchene, O'Reilly and Steve Downie. Duchene looks to be on the verge of a breakout season, and he's playing with a guy who hasn't played much since 2011-12, along with a center moved to the wing.
Downie is an interesting player for the Avs. He brings grit and simplicity to that line, but also played in just two games last season because of a serious knee injury. "I feel good. It's coming. It's been a long couple years for me," Downie said. "It's definitely coming, making progress. A couple more weeks."
10. The main beneficiary on that line could be O'Reilly, who has two linemates who create space for different reasons, Downie with his physical play and Duchene because of the attention he draws from opposing defenses. O'Reilly's comfort level is at center, but is embracing his move to the wing.
"It's been great so far," O'Reilly said. "If I can get comfortable playing left wing, that's just going to grow my game and make me a better player."
11. Having two gifted passers on the same line means the two can make plays in tight spaces, as Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen noticed firsthand during Tuesday's exhibition game. Lehtonen was able to keep the line off the scoreboard, but it wasn't easy.
"That's the thing with those guys," Lehtonen said. "They can pass it well and they can shoot too ... these guys, you find that they really come hard and they have such good shots. They're difficult for me, pretty much anywhere inside the blue line. They can really rip it if they get time."
12. However, it's their calm in traffic that presents a challenge for opposing goaltenders. "I committed on this guy [to] shoot. He has to shoot. And they find somebody 4 feet away and I'm stuck," Lehtonen said. "There was a couple sticky ones like that. They don't panic."
13. It's a marked difference from last season for O'Reilly, whose holdout and offer-sheet fiasco with the Calgary Flames in early 2013 meant he jumped into the season late. Looking back, O'Reilly realizes just how uncomfortable a situation it was at times after he returned.
"It was a group of guys who have been playing, they've been fighting for this and I come back into the mix," O'Reilly said. "It was money, the business side of the sport. It's tough to jump right back into it."
14. Nobody ever said anything negative to him about the holdout, but he sensed friction. "When you step on the ice, you could tell guys felt differently about it," O'Reilly said. "No one ever said anything or were rude. They were obviously happy I was back and playing. But it messes with the dynamic of the team and what they had going. It felt different."
15. He's looking at this season as a fresh start under Roy. If there was discomfort or hard feelings with the old regime, that's been wiped away. He met with Roy and executive vice president Joe Sakic; both former players understand the business side of it. They stressed that the holdout was completely in the past. "It's real refreshing to hear," O'Reilly said. "It's much more comfortable coming back."
16. He can relate to what Derek Stepan was going through in New York. Stepan and the Rangers didn't agree on a deal until Thursday, with the regular season closing in quickly. O'Reilly couldn't even watch Avalanche games when he was holding out. It's not an easy process, but looking back, there's not much he would change.
"Honestly? I thought it worked out great for me," O'Reilly said. "I got an excellent contract. I wish it would have happened sooner and I wouldn't have missed any games."
17. The next big contractual decision the Avalanche will have to make centers on Stastny, who is entering the final campaign of a deal that pays him a healthy $6.6 million. After registering at least 70 points in three of his first four seasons, he hasn't done it since. Both sides appear to be in a wait-and-see mode, to determine how Stastny fits in Roy's system.
"I came in here looking at, 'Let's see how things go. Let's see the new system,' " Stastny said. "I'm getting older now where you want to win. I don't want to worry about the next contract."
18. If the Avalanche struggle this season, the depth at center could mean they opt to move Stastny at some point near the trade deadline if a new deal isn't reached. Just 27 years old, he'd be an outstanding addition to a contender that needs another center. Imagine him plugging the longtime hole at No. 2 center in Chicago. But that's down the road, and Stastny's concern now is winning in Colorado, not elsewhere. "I want to get back to winning," he said. "If that happens, it takes care of itself."
19. A healthy Landeskog will go a long way in helping Colorado win consistently. The 20-year-old had just 17 points during a 2013 season in which he was sidelined with a concussion. He continues to fill out physically, and looked noticeably bigger in camp. He's put on 10 pounds since January.
"I never tried to put on weight, but for me it came natural to just kind of fill out," the Avs' captain said. "I wasn't trying."
20. Landeskog scored on Lehtonen in Tuesday's preseason game, and the veteran goalie left impressed with the way the young Swede plays the game. "He was relentless," Lehtonen said. "Stealing pucks and coming to the net. Just so much energy."
And that's what makes the Avalanche so intriguing. If the Duchene line isn't going, they can counter with a line featuring Stastny and Landeskog. Nathan MacKinnon will make his impact felt soon enough, too. There's certainly questions defensively and in goal, but the forward group can play with anyone.
"When one of them has a good night, it really gives me trouble," Lehtonen said. "They're superstars."