McPhee calls a bluff?

Loose Pucks,Sports,NHL,Capitals,Brian McNally

If the agent for Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov was using a negotiating tactic, general manager George McPhee has called his bluff. Recent Russian media reports have said the 22-year-old could entertain offers to return home and play in Russia’s KHL. McPhee’s reaction on Thursday?

“If [Varlamov] wants to go to the KHL, let him go. This is the best league in the world and most players want to play here,” McPhee said. “I don't pay any attention to that stuff with any of the European players. If they want to go to Europe to play, go back to play. If that's what they do, then you've got the wrong guy.”

Varlamov could also sign an offer sheet with another NHL team starting July 1 that the Caps would then either match or – if not – receive draft picks as compensation. The playoff starter each of the previous two years, Varlamov was limited to 25 games in 2010-11 thanks to recurring knee and groin injuries and didn’t play in the postseason at all. He is in a three-way battle with Michal Neuvirth, 23, and Braden Holtby, 21, for the No. 1 job in Washington.

Let’s be honest – the Caps have a ton of leverage here. Varlamov is only a restricted free agent so his NHL options are limited. Even if another team signed him to an offer sheet the Caps could always match. And the team is less scared than some other clubs might be of Varlamov heading home because they have two promising goalies already in the organization. His checkered injury history doesn’t help matters.

Varlamov slightly backtracked on Thursday, telling Russian-language reporters at Kettler Iceplex that his dream has always been to play in the NHL. But who knows what kind of offer a KHL team would make? If it’s better money and a chance to actually play full time – well, every dream has its price.

The Caps just aren’t going to hand a ton of cash and term to a goalie who has struggled to stay healthy. Even one as talented as Varlamov. He has, after all, started three playoff series for Washington, won one of them, and posted goals-against average (2.23) and save percentage (.924) numbers that ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, in the NHL this season, albeit in 25 games. Varlamov also started – and won – in the glare of the Winter Classic Jan. 1 and was named the NHL’s player of the week in early January. He is well-liked in the locker room and has some leverage, too. His talent. But McPhee doesn’t scare easily, apparently. And if he can get Varlamov to agree to a deal the Caps will have another crucial year of evaluation time with three promising prospects. If it happens that's an enviable spot.      

"I'm really pleased with where we are with the goaltending. We've drafted them and we've developed them well," McPhee said. "They're three terrific kids with wonderful upside and we're in no rush to change things there. There are no pressure points in terms of waivers or anything like that. We're comfortable with that. It's the most important position in the league, they're good and we'll continue to play them to see how they do. And they did well this year."

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