In April of 2013, Joe Sacco was mercifully relieved of his duties as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche – the aftermath of a dismal 2012 campaign that extended the organization’s playoff drought to 3 years and counting.
Just a few months earlier, in Toronto, organizational restructuring was also in the works as the Maple Leafs dismissed renowned goalie coach, Francois Allaire. Allaire (who had been with the Leafs since 2009) and Toronto GM Brian Burke, severed ties, blaming each other for the struggles of goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer.
According to Burke, Allaire’s methods had become outdated. Allaire, who is largely credited with refining the butterfly-block approach that became so popular with a wave of cookie-cutter, French-Canadian goalies of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, pushed back, accusing Leafs management of interfering too much with the approach he desired.
“I don’t think the Leafs need a goalie coach,” Allaire said, after his dismissal. “I think they have enough of them. They have two or three guys who were making decisions with the goalies.”
Meanwhile in Colorado, Avalanche ownership would make like their gridiron counterparts and look to one of their own to resurrect the downtrodden franchise into the perennial playoff contenders they’d been, a decade prior. Sixteen-year captain, Joe Sakic, would assume the Elway role, responsible for all personnel decisions. It wouldn’t take long for Sakic to make his mark, as Patrick Roy was quickly announced as Colorado’s latest head coach and vice president of hockey operations.
Roy (with Sakic) would soon bring Allaire to Colorado to oversee the development of starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and backup J.S. Gigure. A good fit, considering Allaire mentored Roy in Montreal, teaming up to win two Stanley Cups and two Conn Smythe trophies. Allaire also coached Giguere to a Conn Smythe Trophy (2003) and a Stanley Cup (2007) with the Anaheim Ducks.
Allaire & Varlamov Starting Fresh
The 2013 season would provide both Allaire and Varlamov, opportunities to dispel growing criticisms of their respective abilities to perform at the NHL level – Allaire needing to reposition himself as the authority in high-end goaltending development and Varlamov, to prove himself an upper-echelon starter, capable of leading a team to the playoffs.
In discussions leading up to the season, Varlamov admitted to Allaire that his play was not where it needed to be. He was unsatisfied with his 2012 season as well as the degree in which his game was progressing.
“We spoke shortly after I got the job in Colorado and he told me he’d lost his game,” Allaire said.
“I think Varly is looking for a fresh start. I think he’s open to trying something else. He didn’t feel he was going in the right direction. He wants to flush everything out and start fresh.”
Varlamov’s numbers would substantiate his concerns. He finished the lockout-shortened season with a mediocre 11-21-3 record and career worsts in both save percentage (.903) and goals against average (3.02).
Shortly after Allaire was hired, he and Varlamov met for training sessions in both Montreal and Switzerland.
His off-season efforts didn’t go unnoticed. “He is putting in a commitment that makes me believe he deserves a chance to prove himself, and we will give him that chance,” said head coach Patrick Roy.
The training sessions largely focused on honing Varlamov’s positioning, simplifying his movements, and making small tweaks to his basic stance – all while working within his unique style.
“I don’t change goalies, I adapt to their styles and inject some of my techniques to make their game simpler,” Allaire said.
Just how effective have Allaire’s tweaks been for Varlamov?
For starters, he’s a remarkable 40-14-7, leading the league in both wins and saves (1829), and his .927 save percentage is fourth best in the NHL. He’s led this year’s Avalanche to 40 wins faster than any team in franchise history, which includes the Stanley Cup-winning squads of 1996 and 2001.
Varlamov has been the stabilizing force behind an otherwise bland defensive unit. Aside from a peaking Erik Johnson and an emerging Tyson Barrie, the Avs bottom-4 are a clever mix of journeyman, late-bloomer, perpetual free agent, and opportunistic European – together, overachieving.
Their success has hinged significantly on the performance of Varlamov, particularly when his team has been outperformed. In games where the Avalanche have yielded 40+ shots against, Varlamov is an astonishing 7-1-1. When making 40+ saves in a game, he’s been near flawless, at 6-0-1.
Under Allaire’s tutelage, Varlamov looks to be in the mix for a Vezina Trophy nomination, likely alongside Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop and front-runner Tuukka Rask of Boston, although there are a few others who are also deserving of consideration.
Roy, however, thinks Varlamov’s play has been even better and could warrant a Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP.
“He’s giving us a chance to win, but it’s more now than just a chance to win. He’s a difference-maker right now. He’s pretty impressive. In my opinion right now, he should be a candidate for the Hart Trophy. That’s as high as I think of him right now.”
Ultimately, Varlamov’s play won’t be enough to overcome Sidney Crosby’s massive scoring cushion in the race for the Hart. However, being nominated for such a prestigious individual award would be a significant accomplishment for the 25 year-old, one that he will surely credit to the influence of his new goalie coach.
“Thank God the right people came to the team during the summer,” said Varlamov. “Patrick and especially Francois Allaire. Those guys helped me a lot. They changed my game.”