Steve Valiquette had bounced around the NHL for several years, including time with the Islanders and Rangers, by the time he found himself a 28-year-old goaltender toiling for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Russian Superleague.
This was in 2005-06, when he regularly shared practice ice with a 17-year-old prospect then playing for the club’s second team. His name was Semyon Varlamov.
"He was somebody I noticed right away as a talent," Valiquette said of Varlamov. "When you’re a goalie, you’re always evaluating everybody above you and below you. Is he good? Is he not good?"
A decade-and-a-half later, Valiquette now evaluates goaltenders as an analyst for MSG Networks, a TV outlet on which Varlamov appears as the Islanders’ No. 1 goalie.
Nothing that has happened between then and now surprises Valiquette, given what he saw in Russia.
Varlamov arguably was the Islanders’ MVP this season, with seven shutouts and a 2.04 goals-against average.
Those numbers, and his vast experience, led Barry Trotz to surprise many by starting Varlamov in Game 2 of a first-round playoff series against the Penguins on Tuesday, after Ilya Sorokin had won Game 1, 4-3, in overtime.
Varlamov gave up a bad early goal but was sharp down the stretch, making 43 saves in a 2-1 loss. Trotz did not say afterward who would start Game 3, but it would be a shock if it is not Varlamov.
"What I noticed about Varly was his work ethic was phenomenal," Valiquette said in an interview with Newsday before the series began. "I’m seeing this kid just crushing it — out on the ice late, taking breakaways forever, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this kid’s a worker.’ . . . I’d say, ‘Man, this guy is legit.’ "
That earned Valiquette’s respect, and it was in keeping with what he often observed in young, hungry Russians looking for a shot in North America.
Valiquette was so taken with Varlamov that, when Valiquette left Russia, he gave Varlamov his set of nice, new red gloves to replace the old, subpar ones the teenager had been using.
"Another thing I remember about Varly was the off-ice," Valiquette said. "He would have 200 pounds on his back doing split squats on the dirt at the outside gym in Yaroslavl. The conditions were like that of a ‘Mad Max’ set — broken-down vehicles and trailers and stuff.
"These guys were just pressing heavy weight; they would go for long runs. I think these [goalies] coming over from Russia, they’ve really taken over the league. They’re hardened; they’re very hardened. Varly’s tough, man. As tough physically as he is, he’s tough mentally."
Given all that, a tough start in Game 2 was not going to break the guy’s spirit. Despite that bad goal he gave up to Bryan Rust, Varlamov is one of the best in the NHL at not allowing such softies.
"Goalies that succeed in the playoffs allow the fewest low-danger goals, and that’s where Varlamov’s strength has been all season," Valiquette said. "That’s his mental toughness."
Last season, Trotz benched a tiring Varlamov for Game 7 of a series against the Flyers. After Thomas Greiss won that one but started badly in Game 1 against the Lightning, Trotz went right back to Varlamov.
"He doesn’t care," Valiquette said. "He’s got that professional switch, next-puck mentality, and if it’s not for 24 hours, ‘I’m good.’ Not everybody’s got that, man."
During a recent Rangers telecast, Valiquette said he had vacationed with Varlamov. Asked for details, he said it was an accidental encounter when both were on a plane to Grand Cayman during the All-Star break last year.
"I turn around and Varly is there," Valiquette said. "I say, ‘Varly!’ He looks at me, like, ‘Vali?’ I’m like, ‘What’s up, man?’ I got up and gave him a big hug."
They ended up hanging out with one another during the trip, now a long way from Yaroslavl.