Hang around the Avalanche long enough, especially on a Saturday night when franchise royalty is on hand, and you’re tempted to ignore the one dark cloud and hope it goes away.
That’s what the Avs are doing, and they’re doing it exceptionally well. Barely 48 hours after starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov surrendered to police and spent a night in jail on domestic violence charges, the Avs won both ends of their first set of back-to-back games of the season, with Varlamov in net for the first.
The Avs are now riding their second six-game winning streak of the year and they’ve played just 13 times. The turnaround in the team’s performance since Patrick Roy took over as head coach is something pretty close to miraculous. After surrendering 152 goals in 48 games last season with the same goaltending tandem — Varlamov and veteran J.S. Giguere — the Avs have surrendered just 19 in 13 so far.
Giguere, who got the win Saturday night and has given up three goals in four games, said all three stars of the game could have been Avalanche defensemen, quite an endorsement of a group much maligned just a year ago. Roy always makes sure to credit the back-checking and tracking work of his forwards, a key part of his strategic approach.
Hockey is a game prone at times to mythic themes, and Saturday night was one of those times. When Roy’s first game as an NHL coach against his original team, the Canadiens, is a secondary story, there’s a lot going on.
The Avs are very fond of tribute ceremonies and enormous paintings. The decision to raise defenseman Adam Foote’s jersey to the rafters gave them an opportunity to conduct one of the former and commission two of the latter. It also served as a reminder of the vision Roy and executive vice president Joe Sakic are trying to translate into trophies for a second time. With Peter Forsberg, Ray Bourque and Alexei Gusarov in the house, there were plenty of role models around.
This year’s entire squad was out early for the ceremony. They were reminded that they aren’t the only young team to suffer through trying times before finding their stride. Foote caught the end of the lean years in Quebec before moving with the organization to Denver in 1995 and winning Stanley Cup championships in 1996 and 2001. He’s now working as a defensive consultant with the Avs, so I asked if he saw parallels.
“Yeah, for sure there are,” he said. “I think the leadership with Roy and Joe is huge, very calming for them, just like they were as leaders for us. They believe in what they’re going to do and this confidence just floats out into the room. The players, I think, can sense it.
“When Roy came to our team, traded from Montreal, he brought accountability to the locker room. It doesn’t matter what the professional sport is. You can’t win, the coach, the GM, the owner, they can’t hold you accountable. It’s got to come within the locker room, and he taught us that. That was probably one thing we were missing. Him and Mike Keane. Mike Keane was an unreal leader.
“But I do see this young group, they went through some tough times like we did in Quebec. I know Joe wouldn’t do it, or Patrick, if they didn’t have a goal in mind, and that’s to bring a Cup back.”
They’re a long way from that, of course, but they’re playing sensational hockey right now. “For us, we haven’t done anything yet,” said Gabriel Landeskog, the talented Swedish power forward who scored one goal Saturday night, set up another and is still three weeks from his 21st birthday. “We’re just getting going.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the 36-year-old Giguere, a Conn Smythe trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion himself in his younger days. When your starting goaltender spends a night in jail, attention naturally turns to his backup. Giguere is the best interview in the room, a smart, thoughtful player willing to speak his mind, as he did last spring when he ripped unnamed teammates for thinking more about summer vacation than finishing the season strong.
But questions about Varlamov make him uncomfortable, as they do his teammates and club officials. What are they going to say? They support their teammate. These are only allegations at this point. Let the process play out.
We won’t even know how serious that process is likely to be until the Denver district attorney decides what if any formal charges to file. The charges on the arrest warrant were pretty serious — a felony kidnapping count and a misdemeanor assault charge — but there’s no way to know if the DA’s charges will follow suit.
If charges are filed, it’s hard to imagine the legal process working quickly enough to endanger Varlamov’s availability to the Avalanche this season, so long as the club continues to stand by him. And so far, there doesn’t appear to be much public relations risk of standing by him. So when a national reporter asked Giguere if he could understand some fans being happy he was in goal Saturday night rather than Varlamov, he declined comment.
Still, there’s a legitimate hockey question about Giguere’s playing time simply because he’s been nearly perfect so far. As good as Varlamov has been, Giguere has been even better. The lone goal he gave up in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Montreal was just the third he’s surrendered this season in four starts.
The year Roy turned 36, he started 63 games for the Avs and put up a goals-against average of 1.94, the only time in his career he was below 2. He also had a career-best nine shutouts. I’d been meaning to ask Giguere if he thought he was in good enough shape to play more, but asking him Saturday gave the question Varlamov overtones and he handled it like a live grenade.
“I’m satisfied with my role right now,” he said. “It’s a role that fits my body well right now, at my age. I’m 100 percent behind Varly and 100 percent happy with the ice time I have. If need be, if I need to play more, I’ll be ready for that, but I told Patrick, ‘I’ll be happy with whatever you give me.’ This is what it is to be a backup and you’ve just got to take it a day at a time.”
The team has generally taken the approach of not commenting on the Varlamov legal matter, but Roy did answer one question after Saturday’s game. He was asked whether his response to the Varlamov allegations — to put him back in net immediately, about 36 hours after he got out of jail — was informed by his own experience, back in 2000, when he was arrested for domestic violence after police responded to a 911 hangup call from his wife at the time. They found physical damage to the house and took Roy into custody. There was never any evidence of injury to his wife, just to a door in the house, so charges were dismissed.
“I was hoping never to have to answer that question again, but the answer is yes,” Roy said. “And I guess Varly is like me, I mean, appreciates that nobody is making a judgment. The best article I think was written by Terry Frei and he said let’s not make a judgment before the process is done and I thought that was something I appreciated at the time. And I’m sure Varly appreciates seeing that support from our fans and a lot of people around him.”
In this case, the police report confirmed bruises on Varlamov’s girlfriend, Evgenia Vavinyuk, consistent with a physical encounter. So this might be more complicated than Roy’s case, but we’ll know soon enough how Denver DA Mitch Morrissey sees it.
Until then, the goaltending rotation will remain what it has been. Varlamov, 25, has started nine games and has a record of 8-1 with a goals-against average of 1.78. Giguere is 4-0 with a GAA of 0.75.
“He looks like a 25-year-old,” Roy said of Giguere. “I saw him this summer and he was working so hard. Honestly, when you work that hard, eventually it’s going to pay off. That’s what our team does. Our team works hard night after night and we’ve been consistent in our effort which is, I think, one of the reasons why we have the results that we have. And our goaltenders are a big part of it as well. But Jiggy’s been working so hard. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for what’s going on for him right now. It’s fun to see it.”
The renaissance of the Avalanche under Roy is the NHL’s best early-season story. Except for that black cloud, the Sakic-Roy management era couldn’t be off to a better start.