Why the Caps Can't Let Semyon Varlamov Go

WASHINGTON DC - DECEMBER 09: Semyon Varlamov #1 of the Washington Capitals makes a save against the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center on December 9 2010 in Washington DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Semyon Varlamov has options.

On the one hand, the 23-year-old netminder can continue his professional hockey career in the best league in the world, where he'll have to re-earn the job as his team's number one netminder (if he ever truly held it in the first place) while playing for less money and a goaltender coach with whom he has reportedly had professional differences after the man who was hand-picked to tutor him parted ways with the team.

On the other hand, there's the lure of going home to Russia to play for his favorite coach and mentor in a (presumably guaranteed) starter role for potentially significantly more money.

Tough decision?

Varly himself has expressed a desire to stay in the NHL, even if he sacrifices a few rubles to do so... emphasis on "a few" - as Slava Malamud reported earlier in the week, "[w]hen pressed on how big a pay cut he would be willing to take, Varlamov replied: "Not a really huge one.'"

And why would he? Varlamov is coming off a season in which he was one of just four NHL goaltenders to appear in more than 25 games and have a goals against average of less than 2.25 and a save percentage above .920. The other three players to meet those criteria? This season's Vezina Trophy finalists.

So what we're left with is the Caps negotiating with a pending Restricted Free Agent who has pretty good leverage, despite the fact that the team has two other NHL-caliber (and likely NHL-ready) talents in net. Whether or not Varlamov is currently the best of the three (spoiler alert: he is), losing a recent first-round pick and potential franchise goalie for nothing - the return the Caps would get if Varly bolts - would be brutally poor asset management, despite George McPhee's publicly indifferent, "If he wants to go to the KHL, let him go" attitude (which is wholly understandable in light of the number of Russians he has drafted and the message he wants to send to them).

Which brings us to the brass tacks of the whole situation - how much? The offer Malamud reported as being on the table in Russia is worth roughly $4 million (which is taxed at a lower rate than it would be here, but is also not guaranteed and is subject to, um, "renegotiation", even mid-season). There is no indication as to the term of the potential KHL deal, but given the nature of those contracts, that might be relatively meaningless information even if it was readily available.

From the Caps' side of things, one might reasonably expect that the team offered Varlamov the same deal that Michal Neuvirth signed, which kicks in late next week - two years at $1.15 million per. And after the year Neuvy had, can Varly really ask for more? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

When Neuvirth signed his extension last September, he was a Calder-eligible goalie with a career 2.80 GAA and .910 save percentage facing an incumbent starter and a widespread notion that the team might need to acquire a veteran netminder to get them to the next level. In many ways Neuvirth bet against himself and lost, as he would certainly command a more favorable deal if he was still negotiating today. Ultimately, using Neuvirth's deal as a benchmark for Varlamov discussions is largely meaningless.

The range for a new Varlamov deal, then, is established as somewhat north of $1.15 million and "not a really huge" drop from $4 million. Does $2.5 million get it done? $3 million? It's impossible to say, of course. But if you want a bit of perspective, how about the fact that the Caps could give Varlamov $3.4 million and not take a cap hit from their three goalies combined that would be as much as the any of the top-10 individual goalie cap hits for 2010-11? Viewing the goaltending position - and the two bargains the Caps already have locked in there - as a whole certainly makes any perceived overpayment on Varlamov more palatable.

And what about the ever-present injury concerns? Well, they've been ever-present and there's no real reason to believe that they won't be going forward. But the impact they would have on the team with regards to the cap aren't crippling because the team has a capable - and dirt cheap - third-string goaltender in Braden Holtby. So with a healthy Varlamov, they take his cap hit. With a short-term-injured Varlamov, they take his cap hit plus Holtby's tiny ~$637,777 hit to fill that roster spot. And if there's a longer-term injury to Varly and the team doesn't feel comfortable with a Neuvirth/Holtby tandem, Long-Term Injured Reserve is likely an option. Essentially, while "they shouldn't pay a lot for the guy" might carry weight as an argument, "they shouldn't pay a lot for the guy because he's always hurt" doesn't - the injuries in and of themselves won't hamper the team unreasonably.

All of this is not to say that the Caps should simply cave in to Varlamov's demands. They shouldn't. They should get the best deal they can for the team. But the key word there is "deal" - the team can't let Varlamov walk over a relatively small amount of money.

McPhee boasts a bit about his team's good fortune at the draft in having Russian players fall to them "because they'll come to play in Washington." The question now is, will the team do what it takes to keep them here?

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