Colorado’s curious way to fill goaltending needs leaves Caps GM scratching his head

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When today’s free agent frenzy began, the Colorado Avalanche began the day with no goalies to speak of on their NHL roster. With that kind of immediate shopping list to fulfill and the pickings out there fairly limited, Avalanche GM Greg Sherman had some work to do. With Tomas Vokoun set to be the biggest goaltending name on the free agent list, the Avalanche seemed poised to open up the vault for him and bring him in. Not so fast.

Instead, Sherman went in a different direction. Rather than sign Vokoun, he swung a trade with the Washington Capitals for restricted free agent goalie Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov had been making rumblings about how he was set to jump to the KHL rather than deal with the Capitals and their goaltending situation, but now he’s set to be the man in Colorado as the Avalanche signed Varlamov to a two-year deal worth $5.5 million.

The package the Avalanche gave up for Varlamov, however, is stunning: Colorado gives Washington their 2012 first round pick as well as a 2012 or 2013 second round pick. With Colorado not shaping up to be a contending team next year, that pick could turn out to be a lottery choice. The Capitals probably don’t need that kind of help to improve, but Colorado gave it to them.

Capitals GM George McPhee was perhaps the most surprised guy around at the offer for Varlamov as CSN Washington’s Ryan O’Halloran finds out.

“We were hoping to have Semyon back this year and play a full season so we could get that kind of value for him next summer because we knew we would have to do something with one of the goaltenders,” McPhee said during a briefing Friday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “But we got that value now.

“Given the injuries, I was surprised we got it now but it was a good deal for Colorado – they got a kid who has lots of upside and if he can stay healthy, will be really good for them.”

Upside is the big thing here. Varlamov has played pretty well for Washington in his two and a half years in D.C. Varlamov has gone 30-13-12 in that time with a 2.39 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. The one major issue with Varlamov in his career has been staying healthy and not giving up the occasional soft goal. Injuries the last couple years opened the door to seeing both Jose Theodore and Michal Neuvirth to getting their fair share of starts and Neuvirth took the starting job over last season.

With that sort of track record, it’s stunning that Greg Sherman would fork over two draft picks that could turn into big time players. The 2012 draft is believed to be a very deep one and with the Avalanche potentially giving up a very high choice to Washington, they’d better hope that Varlamov can get comfortable and dominate in goal. Sherman did lock up some backup help and a mentor for Varlamov today as well in the form of Jean-Sebastien Giguere signing him to a two year contract worth $2.5 million.

The Avalanche’s plan in goal is beyond curious and the package they gave up to get Varlamov is mind-numbingly bad, especially given Varlamov’s big talk about going to the KHL. Sure, money talks and in this case it keeps him in the NHL but that kind of attitude heading into a situation where the team was as bad as they were last year you have to wonder what’s going through Varlamov’s head. McPhee says that all he wanted was the chance to be #1 unchallenged.

“There was a deal to be made,” McPhee said. “In fact, we were close last weekend. The issue really was that he wanted in his mind to be guaranteed that he’s the No. 1 guy and be paid like that and we couldn’t guarantee that with the competition we have at that position.”

The Capitals preferred to have a system for one more year that included Varlamov competing with Neuvrith and Holtby.

“You can’t really guarantee any player anything; they have to come in and prove themselves,” McPhee said. “Varly is committed to being a really good player and we said, ‘Come back and compete for it.’ He didn’t seem to want to do that and the indication was, if [the No. 1 job] wasn’t there, he was going to play in Russia for a year.”

Now Varlamov heads to Colorado where he’ll likely be the top guy as long as his play earns that status. With Giguere there as a safety net, he’s not really the guy you want starting every game, but if Varlamov suffers or gets hurt, it’s all on Giguere to try to keep the team alive. That’s a rough spot to be in from the get go. The Avs are taking a big chance on this situation and after how poorly they did last year, instead of getting a sure thing they think playing risky is how to get it done. It’s a gutsy move by Sherman to do it this way, but perhaps he’s on to something the rest of us aren’t clued in on with Semyon Varlamov.

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson