Sometimes, the shadow of Patrick Roy follows Semyon Varlamov around the ice.
Breathing hard to catch up, too.
At the conclusion of practice on Wednesday, the Colorado Avalanche coach tried to pull alongside his goaltender as he went through a cool-down session. Roy just wanted to track him down to tell Varlamov how pleased he was with the way he’s been performing.
After all, Varlamov’s play in net has looked as efficient and effortless as, well, the Hall of Famer who’s now coaching him. Off to a 7-1 start and among the league leaders in goals-against (1.76), Varlamov is thriving in the presence of Roy.
”I think Varly, today, when I said how proud I was the way he’s bounced back, he had a big smile,” Roy said. ”He was happy. I think as a player that’s what you want to hear from your coach.”
Not just any coach, but Roy — one of the best to ever play the position.
No pressure living up to his expectations.
That’s the thing: Roy has been as much of a confidant as coach, which Varlamov appreciates.
”This has been awesome,” said the 25-year-old Varlamov, who will start in goal Friday night in Dallas. ”He can see something in a game, during a game, just some things I have to do better, what I did wrong, or something like that. That’s helped me a lot. I just have a lot of confidence.”
A year ago, Varlamov couldn’t say that. He was struggling in goal — allowing three goals a game — and hardly looking anything like the type of franchise goalie the Avalanche thought they were acquiring when they sent a first-round pick to Washington in 2011.
This season has been a big turnaround. That has to do with the arrival of Roy and a staff that included goalie coach Francois Allaire, who once mentored Roy.
This summer, Allaire, Varlamov and backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who has two shutouts this season, spent a few weeks in Montreal honing their technique.
More specifically, Allaire tweaked some minute things with Varlamov’s form. Asked what precisely they worked on, Varlamov smiled and said, ”I don’t want to talk about that.”
”Yep,” he said. ”But we’re still working on this different style a lot. I’m still learning how to play that way, how coach wants me to play.”
Unlike past years, Varlamov isn’t being asked to come up with the big save time after time, or to be the backbone of the defense. In Roy’s system, the defensemen are more aggressive on the offensive end and way more accountable for helping out Varlamov.
”He’s not hanging out to dry like in the past with some of our old systems,” defenseman Erik Johnson explained. ”It’s pretty cool to see Varly transition into an elite NHL goalie.”
Then again, forward Matt Duchene knew this day would arrive. He’s been touting the talent of Varlamov for years, but no one would listen because Colorado was so buried in the standings.
”I’ve been a huge fan of him since he came here,” said Duchene, who’s among the NHL leaders in goals with nine. ”I love shooting on him at practice, because it’s always a challenge.
”I think Varly feels more comfortable than ever right now. He knows he’s not alone in this and that people are backing him up every night.”
This helps with Varlamov’s confidence as well: He no longer feels so isolated. When he first arrived in the U.S., the Russian star spoke only broken English. By hanging out with the players in the locker room, he’s steadily picked up the language to the point where he can hold a casual conversation with anyone.
”Life is so much easier when you can speak with people,” Varlamov said. ”The boys did a good job of teaching me.”
Another challenge soon awaits Varlamov, one that he’s trying not to think about but it’s getting more and more difficult: The 2014 Sochi Games in his home country. He’s hoping to be in goal for the Olympics.
”Of course, that’s a dream for every player growing up, to play for our national team,” he said. ”It’s always so much fun to play for a national team. It’s always something special, especially for me because Russian fans, Russian people, they pull for us. It’s going to be very cool if I go and play there.
”But I don’t think right now about Sochi. I think only about how we’re playing here, with Colorado.”