DENVER -- Even new Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy wasn't certain what to expect from goalie Semyon Varlamov this season.
"There were a lot of question marks, and I think he responded to all the question marks," Roy said. "He worked so hard. He was really determined to turn things around and play with consistency, and that's what he's been doing. He was very determined to make a turn here, and he did. I appreciate what he’s been doing since the start of the year. He’s been a difference maker."
Crediting Roy and veteran goalie coach Francois Allaire for tweaking his style and raising his confidence level, Varlamov has put together the best season of his six-year NHL career. He established a career high for wins (41), eclipsing by one the single-season franchise record Roy set in 2000-01 when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup for the second time, and he held opponents to two goals or fewer 30 times.
Goalie - COL
GAA: 2.41 | SVP: 0.927
"It's amazing to be part of the history," said Varlamov, who signed a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension during the season. "I can say it's a great feeling; a better feeling than last year, that's for sure. Right now, everyone is excited; the fans are excited about the playoffs. It's a different feeling in the locker room right now. The guys are real excited to come to the locker room and spend time here. It's so much fun to be winning."
Roy, who won 551 games in 19 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and Avalanche, couldn't have envisioned how well the Russian-born Varlamov, 25, would play in what has been a remarkable turnaround season. Colorado is returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after finishing last in the Western Conference and 29th in the League a season ago.
"In my opinion right now, he should be a candidate for the Hart Trophy," Roy said. "That's as high as I think of him right now. Varly has been our best player, he's been phenomenal for us from the get-go."
Varlamov enjoyed a measure of success with the Washington Capitals, who made him a first-round pick (No. 23) at the 2006 NHL Draft. He posted a 30-13-12 record in parts of three seasons and went 10-9 in the playoffs with a first-round win against the New York Rangers as a rookie in 2009, but nagging groin and knee injuries stymied his development.
The Avalanche had been in the market for a goalie since Roy retired in 2003 and they paid a heavy price, sending first- and second-round picks in the 2012 NHL Draft to acquire him from the Capitals on July 1, 2011.
Varlamov showed promise in winning 26 games in 2011-12 when the Avalanche were in the hunt for the playoffs until the final week of the season, but he slipped to an 11-21-3 record last season while playing behind a porous defense on a team that lost 20 of its final 28 games.
"I think we gave him way too much work, he got way too tired and eventually he broke down," said center Matt Duchene, who is recovering from a knee injury. "This year, we've been way better in front of him and he's been awesome. I remember when we first got him and he would make a few big saves and you'd go, 'Wow.' Now we almost take it for granted a little bit. He's a special goaltender. I wouldn't be surprised if you see him challenge for a Vezina [Trophy] in the next few years."
Varlamov's revival can be traced, in part, to the management and coaching shakeup after the Avalanche missed the playoffs for the third year in a row. Josh Kroenke, the son of owner Stan Kroenke, was promoted to president and he named former Avalanche star center Joe Sakic executive vice president of hockey operations. Sakic replaced coach Joe Sacco with Roy, who brought in Allaire, his goalie coach in Montreal. Allaire also worked with Avalanche backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere when Giguere won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
"We were very lucky when [Allaire] was available to us this summer," Roy said. "For him to be available to me as my first goalie coach during my first NHL coaching job, that was an easy decision for me."
Despite his Hockey Hall of Fame resume, Roy took a hands-off approach from the start when it came to handling the goalies, giving Allaire carte blanche to make decisions.
"The great thing with this whole scenario is that Patrick wants us to play like Francois wants us to play," Giguere said. "There's no arguing between the goalie coach and the coach. It's been a great working environment."
Allaire rarely grants interviews and wasn't available for this story.
Allaire worked extensively with Varlamov, first in Switzerland in July, and then in Montreal in August before training camp. Varlamov was joined by Giguere in Montreal, which was when Roy first sat down with his young goalie to discuss the upcoming season.
"At first I did a lot of talking, but at the end Varly was talking as much as I was," Roy said. "He was very involved in the conversation and I thought it was a great connection. I really enjoyed it. He mentioned to me that he was not happy with his consistency and he wanted to work on that. He said he had some good games, but he had some bad games as well. He was up and down, and he wanted to play every night and be a difference-maker.
"He was very determined to make a turn here and he did. I'm sure he's going to remember how it happened because he was working so hard. He made a big commitment going to Switzerland and a big commitment coming to Montreal and working with Jiggy and Francois for almost 10 days on his own. I mean, this shows how much he cared, how much he wanted to do well this year."
According to Varlamov, Allaire worked on lateral movement and convinced Varlamov to hold his glove higher and at a slightly different angle, giving shooters less net.
"He helped me to change my style a little bit," said Varlamov, who fulfilled his dream of playing for the Russian Olympic team in Sochi, though he didn't win a medal. "I just want to say thank you to him and thanks to Patrick. The guys play very well for me. That's why I have better results, because we're playing better defensively."
Giguere said Varlamov's improvement happened because he has been willing to put in the extra work.
"When Francois came here, I told Varly it would be very good for him," Giguere said. "It would be something that would bring him to the next level as long as he was willing to work. I told him, 'You're going to get better with him coaching you,' and it's been a great relationship between the two of them. They work really well together and it's helped Varly to become the goalie that we all knew he had the potential [to be].
"Varly could have easily stayed in Russia over the summer, but he chose a different path because he wanted to get better, and he got a lot better. We don't always see those things behind the scene and it's good to see someone rewarded when that happens."
Colorado is hoping for even better things from Varlamov in the postseason.