Varlamov wants to stay with the Caps, only if the price is right

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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.

Panthers’ Weegar gets misconduct penalty after abuse of officials

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Here’s in a lesson in not swinging your stick around when there’s a linesman escorting you to the penalty box.

Florida Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar was on the receiving end of a 10-minute misconduct for abuse of an official after his frustrations boiled over against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.

Weegar was incensed that a penalty wasn’t called after he was boarded by Maple Leafs forward Tyler Ennis. Weegar was slow to get up and when he did, he began spamming cross-checks to anyone within striking distance, including several to Ennis, one of which appeared to catch Ennis in the neck.

As he was getting taken to the box on a four-minute double minor for the cross-checking, Weegar slammed his stick against the glass near the penalty box. The stick appeared to catch the linesman Jonny Murray in the helmet.

The whole ordeal can be seen here:

Weegar got a stern talking to by referee Chris Rooney before he was sent to the locker room to serve out his misconduct.

Toronto, who were down 2-0 at that point, was unable to score on the extended power play.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks mascot Tommy Hawk involved in fan altercation

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It appears as if one Chicago Blackhawks fan took a double loss on Friday night.

A video that has popped up on social media shows Blackhawks mascot Tommy Hawk taking down a fan at United Center.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago police said the man in the video allegedly punched and put the mascot in a headlock. What happens in the video, then, appears to be the aftermath of that.

In the 24-second video, Tommy Hawk pulls off the body-to-body suplex to get his alleged attacker to the ground before landing some ground-and-pound. He’s then able to get some sort of body lock on him and push him away.

Here’s the video:

Tommy Hawk certainly held his own here.

The Blackhawks lost 4-3 in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets. According to the Sun-Times story, police were notified about the disturbance around 11:15 p.m. The game, which started at 7:30 was over at that point.

The Sun-Times reported that no one was in custody as of Saturday evening. The Blackhawks said they were looking into the incident.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Flames, Wild continue bad blood with three early fights

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When the Minnesota Wild and Calgary Flames met this past week all hell broke loose, resulting in a pair of suspensions to Flames teammates Mark Giordano and Ryan Lomberg.

Giordano was hit with a two-game suspension for kneeing Mikko Koivu, while Lomberg was suspended two games of his own for leaving the bench during a line change to start a fight with Wild defenseman Mathew Dumba. That fight was in response to a big hit by Dumba that injured Mikael Backlund.

A lot of that bad blood spilled over into Saturday’s 2-1 Flames win that featured three fights early in the first period.

Those fights started just 40 seconds into the game when Dumba found himself in a fight with Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk.

Dumba ended up exiting the game after the first period and did not return. Wild coach Bruce Boudreau had no update on his status after the game except to say they would know more on Monday.

The fisticuffs did not stop there. Later in the period Giordano fought Minnesota’s Matt Hendricks.

But there was more! The most unexpected fight of the three featured Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter, who has not been involved in a fight since the 2009 season, dropping the gloves with Sam Bennett

All of that happened in the first 18 minutes of the game.

But Giordano and Tkachuk did not just impact the game with their fists — they also scored goals.

Giordano continued what has been a  career year (and maybe even a Norris Trophy worthy season) by scoring a shorthanded goal mid-way through the first period to give the Flames an early 1-0 lead, while Tkachuk scored his 14th goal of the season in the third period to help give the Flames the win.

David Rittich also continued his surprising play in the Flames’ net by stopping 34 of the 35 shots he faced.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins ready to welcome back Matt Murray, but Kris Letang’s status is in doubt

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to welcome back the one player that could significantly alter their 2018-19 season, and are also facing the possibility of being without the one player they may not be able to replace.

Matt Murray, the team’s regular starting goalie over the past two years, is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday night for the first time since Nov. 17 when the team plays host to the Los Angeles Kings.

His return could potentially coincide with the loss of their top defenseman, Kris Letang.

Letang had to leave the Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Friday night with just under eight minutes to play in the third period after he found himself tangled up with Bruins forward Joakim Nordstrom and awkwardly fell to the ice. He struggled to make it back to the bench with an apparent leg injury, and then needed help getting down the tunnel from the team’s bench to the locker room.

When asked after the game if he had any update on Letang’s status, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan simply responded with “no” and gave no other details.

It is still not yet known what his status for Saturday’s game is, or if he will be sidelined for any length of time.

If he is, that would be brutal news for a Penguins team that is trying to play its way back into a solid playoff spot after an inconsistent start to the season. Letang has probably been their best, most irreplaceable player this season and has bounced back from a down 2017-18 season in massive way. He is playing more than 26 minutes per night at a Norris Trophy level. He already has 25 points in 30 games and fairly dominant numbers across the board, from his ability to generate shots, to his possession numbers, to the way he has played alongside his defense partner, Brian Dumoulin.

When asked about potentially losing Letang, Dumoulin said “Obviously it’s tough, we need that guy in the lineup.”

He is not wrong.

The Letang-Dumoulin duo has been one of the NHL’s best this season. During 5-on-5 play the Penguins are outscoring teams by a 28-14 margin when Letang and Dumoulin are on the ice, and controlling more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts and more than 58 percent of the scoring chances.

It is a night and day difference between them and their bottom-two pairings that are currently made up of Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak on the second period, and Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson on the third. When Letang and Dumoulin are not on the ice together the Penguins’ goal differential drops to minus-1 while their shot attempt and scoring chance percentage all plunge to under 48 percent.

The common refrain from the Penguins on Friday night is that they have succeeded in Letang’s absence before, specifically during the 2016-17 season when they won the Stanley Cup with him missing the second half of the regular season and the entire postseason.

“We’ve done it before,” said Dumoulin. “We know we can do it. We’ve been carrying eight defensemen so far this year, everyone can play, everyone needs time and action and we want to just keep it simple as a defense corp if he is missing.”

“Because we think we have NHL defenseman,” said Sullivan when asked why he thinks the team would be able to succeed again if Letang has to miss time. “Juuso [Riikola] has played extremely well. Chad [Ruhwedel] is an NHL defenseman. He’s played for our team for a few years, he’s played in the playoffs, he’s won the Stanley Cup with us. These guys are NHL defensemen, and regardless of who is in our lineup we believe we have enough to win.”

Honestly, there is no other approach for the coaches and players to take. But looking at things objectively from an outside perspective it’s easy to see how that team was very fortunate to win without such an important player, and also how different this team is.

With Justin Schultz already sidelined (and he is still expected to miss a couple more months), the only defenders still left over from the 2017 Stanley Cup winning team are Maatta, Dumoulin, and Ruhwedel, the latter of which only appeared in six playoff games that year and has only been a role player this season.

This team also isn’t getting the same level of goaltending that 2017 received, and that was probably the biggest driving force behind that championship run.

Which brings us to the news of Murray’s likely return on Saturday.

Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 11 games this season and an .877 save percentage that is among the worst in the league. He was activated from injured reserve late in the week and backed up Casey DeSmith in the Penguins past two games, including for DeSmith’s 48-save performance on Friday night.

Overall DeSmith has done a fine job filling in, mixing in some spectacular saves and games with some rough patches as well. But if they are going to get back to the top of the NHL and compete for a championship again it is awfully hard to see them doing that without Murray playing some kind of a significant role in that.

Goaltending was one of the biggest factors in the Penguins’ early postseason exit a year ago (and some of their regular season struggles), and it’s played a role in their early struggles this season. Even if Murray and DeSmith end up splitting time they’re going to need strong performances from both no matter who is in the lineup on defense.

The position is going to take on even more importance if their top defender has to miss any extended time as they attempt to play their way out of their mediocre start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.