- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Late in the season, there were whispers that goaltender Semyon Varlamov might leave the Washington Capitals to play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

When asked about those reports the day after the Caps were eliminated from the playoffs, general manager George McPhee stood up for the NHL.

“If he wants to go to the KHL, let him go,” McPhee said in a bit of posturing. “This is the best league in the world, and most players want to play here.”

That’s exactly what Varlamov has decided to do — go to the KHL next season, according to a report Wednesday by the Russian news agency Sovietsky Sport. It’s uncertain whether the 23-year-old will sign with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv or SKA St. Petersburg, Sovietsky Sport reported. Either way, Varlamov can’t officially sign a deal in Russia until Friday.

The Caps’ only statement Wednesday came from spokesman Sergey Kocharov, who said, “Our long-standing policy is not to comment on ongoing contract negotiations with players.”

On Tuesday, McPhee sounded unsure about the situation, saying, “We’ve negotiated, and I don’t know any more than you do whether it’ll happen or not.” Varlamov is a restricted free agent, and the Caps tendered a qualifying offer to maintain his rights.

Varlamov has said he would like to play in the NHL — not just serve as Michal Neuvirth’s backup. That’s something McPhee said he could’ve done in Washington, just as Tim Thomas did in Boston by winning his job back from Tuukka Rask.

“It’s been explained to Varly that Tim Thomas didn’t perform the way he expected last year and it didn’t go the way he wanted, but he came back and won a Vezina and won a Cup this year. Not bad,” McPhee said. “So the opportunity’s there.”

If Varlamov does indeed bolt for the KHL, the Caps would retain his NHL rights, though it’s uncertain if the team would welcome him back after a move like this. His reputation in the eyes of many NHL front offices could take a hit.

“It’s a really risky move by Varlamov,” said analyst Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild. “Even if he performs well in the KHL, teams may not be jumping up and down to bring him back.”

But Goldman said this could be something of a “blessing in disguise” for the Caps, who boast one of the deepest goalie pools in hockey and have Braden Holtby seemingly ready to step up from the AHL.

According to McPhee, a Caps team without Varlamov would feature Neuvirth and Holtby — not a veteran goalie backing up Neuvirth. That duo would count less than $1.79 million against the salary cap this season.

Veteran goalie options could be available as late as September, Goldman said, if the Caps judge that Holtby isn’t ready. But Goldman is convinced that the presence of returning goaltending coach Dave Prior and associate coach Olie Kolzig will help Holtby make the leap without much of a drop-off from Varlamov.

“I think it’s all working out pretty nicely for the Capitals right now,” he said.

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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