It’s no secret that the Washington Capitals have been negotiating with restricted free agent Semyon Varlamov to work out a contract extension. The 23-year-old former 1st round pick is finishing up his 3-year entry-level deal that was worth approximately $2.5 million. All parties involved agree he has earned a raise for his second contract—the terms of the raise is where the two sides disagree. To complicate the situation, there are rumors that Varlamov could head back to Russia and the KHL if the Capitals don’t present him with a suitable contract.
Varlamov recently talked about the Capitals and his desire to stay in the NHL in an interview that appeared in the Washington Post:
“My chances of staying in the NHL are high. I would really like to sign a deal in America. Yes, even if it’s for less money than what I am offered in Russia.”
That’s great news, right? So what’s the problem? Here’s the follow up question and answer:
When pressed on how big a pay cut he would be willing to take, Varlamov replied: “Not a really huge one.”
Yeah. So that could be a problem. Rumor has it that SKA St. Petersburg would be offering a contract in the neighborhood of $4 million per season (with significantly lower taxes). In DC, the Caps are likely to offer a contract similar to Michal Neuvirth’s 2-year, $2.3 million deal. To be clear, that’s only $1.15 per season while the KHL could be offering $4 million. If the Capitals expect him to stay for another season, they’re going to need him to take a substantial pay cut.
“According to sources within the KHL, SKA may offer Varlamov a multi-year deal worth in the vicinity of $4 million per year. SKA is notorious as the league’s top spender, and it had made waves last year by acquiring former San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who was subsequently cut from the team in mid-season. SKA is also, for all its lavish ways, a notorious under-achiever, having never won a championship, and this offseason, with a new coaching staff (which includes goalie coach Jussi Parkkila, Varlamov’s personal mentor), the pressure is higher than ever.”
Usually in these situations, the player has most of the leverage in the negotiations. The team desperately wants to keep the player, yet the player has options. Yet in this case, both sides have alternatives. Yes, Varlamov can take the opportunity to bolt to the KHL for his payday. But at the same time, the Capitals are currently sitting on three talented young goaltenders with room for only two on their roster. Here are their numbers last season:
- Michal Neuvirth: 27-12-4 with a .914 save percentage and 2.45 GAA
- Semyon Varlamov: 11-9-5 with a .924 save percentage and 2.23 GAA
- Braden Holtby: 10-2-2 with a .934 save percentage and 1.79 GAA
Take a quick look at their statistics and it’s easy to see why the decision will be difficult for Caps GM George McPhee. Braden Holtby clearly has the best statistics—but he also has an incredibly small sample size. Looking at his careers statistics, he’s steadily improved his game each time he’s jumped to a higher league. In the AHL last season, he owned a 2.29 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. The only stats better on his resume were during his 14 game cameo in the NHL. He certainly looks like the type of prospect who is ready for his shot.
Michal Neuvirth gained the trust of head coach Bruce Boudreau last season and the Caps rode him to a spectacular second half. It’s easy to see why Boudreau was so quick to believe in the rookie netminder as well. Neuvirth won back-to-back Calder Cups with the Hershey Bears and was voted the NHL’s Rookie of the Month in October to start the 2010-11 season. He’s a proven winner and has shown he’s capable of being the #1 goaltender on a team expected to win (in the regular season).
Then there’s Varlamov. He had better statistics than Neuvirth—yet his record was pedestrian at best. After his spectacular play against the Rangers in the 2009 playoffs, the hockey world was waiting for him to takeoff. In the 2009-10 season, Varlamov earned the starting role before he was injured. Worse than anything, he’s teased Washington fans with flashes of spectacular play. He shows signs of a goaltender that can carry a team on his back for months at a time; yet he also shows signs of a goaltender that will frustrate fans if they ever truly depend on him.
We’ll find out over the next few weeks which direction the Capitals chose to go with their future. Right now we know that Varlamov would like to stay in the NHL and he’d like to be compensated handsomely for his efforts. In that respect, he’s just like any other player.
Unfortunately for the Capitals, if they don’t come up with decent proposal, Varlamov and SKA St. Petersburg could make their goaltending decision for them.