Billy Smith is the best goalie in New York Islanders history, with a career so significant, no one’s future achievements could ever displace him. The iconic netminder is the last goalie to carry a team to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships, and with so much parity in the league today, it would take a miracle for a team to pull off another four-peat.
Smith’s legacy isn’t just about Stanley Cup rings. It is about his place at the top of almost every Islanders’ goalie record: games played, wins, losses, overtime/shootout losses, saves, shots, minutes played, and penalty minutes. His reign remains unchallenged, 32 years after he retired.
There have been only a total of 53 goalies in the club history. With names like Kelly Hrudy, Rick DiPietro, and Tommy Salo, to name a few, but no one has come within striking distance of dethroning Smith as the best statistical goalie in the club’s history. DiPietro was a member of the Islanders for 11 seasons and barely made it to the halfway point of many of these records because injuries played a huge factor in his pursuit.
For analysis purposes, we will use recently signed Ilya Sorokin as an example to see what kind of longevity a young goalie would have to endure to make a run at any of Smith’s records. By no means are we saying Sorokin will accomplish all these feats, yet Semyon Valaramov is already 32 years old and doesn’t have enough time on Long Island to be a viable option for this conversation. Sorokin is only 26 years old, and who knows what he could accomplish in the next decade as the Islanders contend for another Stanley Cup, one that has eluded them since 1983.
Smith’s Games Played and Win-Loss Records
In 17 seasons, 1973-1989, Smith played in 674 games between the pipes. The next closest player on the list is DiPietro, with 318 games. During Smith’s career, he averaged 40 games a season with a career-high 58 in 1974-75 and a career-low 17 in 1988-89, his final season. For comparison’s sake, Marc-Andre Fleury leads all active players in games played (883), averaging 52 starts a season over his 17-year career. In contrast, Varlamov has appeared in 81 games so far, with two years left on his current deal. With the opportunity to play another 80 games over the next two seasons, he could reach 160 appearances, far from Smith’s and DiPietro’s totals.
Sorokin, meanwhile, has 22 games on his résumé already. If he manages to split the duties with Varlamov and earn 40 starts, he’ll bring his total to 142 before the end of his deal in 2023-24. He’ll be 29 when it’s time for a new contract, and if he signs a six-year deal while playing 40 games or so a season, he could reach 382 games played after ten seasons. Those projected totals only put the then 36-year-old in fourth place all-time in games played, almost 300 games short of the record.
Smith is the only goalie in club history with over 200 wins, finishing his distinguished career with a 304-230-104 record. The next closest goalie to Smith is Glenn Resch, with 157 wins, almost half of what his old battery mate achieved. DiPietro has the third-most wins (130) and second-most losses (136).
To add more perspective to this analysis, only four goalies have accumulated 100 wins in franchise history, leaving Smith in a class all by himself. Conversely, a few goalies came close, but only Smith and DiPietro managed to lose more than 100 games, while Smith remains the only netminder with over 100 ties/shootout losses.
Varlamov has a record of 38-25-10 in his two seasons. He has also yet to record 20 wins in a season while a member of the Islanders. If he manages to surpass those totals and collect 50 wins over the last two years of his deal, he’d only finish close to 90 wins. Sorokin picked up 13 wins in his first season while splitting the starting duties. For argument’s sake, say Sorokin wins 22 games a season over his three-year deal. That would bring his career totals close to 80 in four seasons.
If he signs the same six-year deal as mentioned before, he’ll be an Islander until he is 36. By then, he could be the main guy who secures 25 wins a season. At the end of his contract, he could end up with an estimated 230 wins, about 70+ wins away from the team record.
The current duo of Varlamov and Sorokin will not get close to the team’s defeats record either since neither goalie has lost 20 games in a season yet. Since the odds are against them to play a full ten years in blue and orange, even with 20-25 losses a season, it would be tough for them to close in on that record, leaving it as one of the more unbreakable ones that Smith has his name etched on.
Minutes Played, Saves, Shots Faced, and Goals Against Records
Smith played 38,069 minutes as a member of the Islanders, the only goalie to appear in over 20,000 for his career. DiPietro is once again in second place in this category, playing 18,199 minutes during his 11 seasons. Smith averaged 2,239 minutes a season, while DiPietro averaged just 1,654 minutes due to the many injuries that plagued his career.
So far in two seasons, Varlamov has played 4,634 minutes. If he split the duties and played 2,460 minutes a season, he could end up with over 9,900 minutes as an Islander when his contract expires. Sorokin played in only 1,272 minutes last season but should see a significant increase with more games to play in 2021-22. When his new three-year contract expires, Sorokin could surpass 8,652 minutes played. Circling back to the six-year contract extension with the same season numbers plugged in, at the end of his ten-year career with the Islanders, Sorokin could top 2,3412 minutes played. That is a difference of over 15,000 minutes for the record, and Sorokin would need to play another five seasons to even be in the ballpark of Smith’s record.
Smith faced 19,083 shots while tending net, about 11,000 more than DiPietro, second all-time with 8,915. Smith also made 17,075 saves during his tenure, surrendering 2,008 goals in the process. No one else in club history has even given up a thousand goals, let alone make nine thousand saves, which means these records are almost untouchable given today’s style of play.
In two seasons, Varlamov has given up just 182 goals for an average of 91 a season. For anyone to break Smith’s record, that goalie would have to give up 91 goals per season throughout a 22-year career. Sorokin gave up 46 goals in his rookie campaign and should see an increase in that number since he’ll get more playing time moving forward. If we calculate his totals based on 100 goals against a campaign, he could surrender 346 goals by the end of his new deal and around 946 at the end of his fictitious ten-year career. Even with a lengthy projected stay, Sorokin won’t surpass 1,000 goals against, making Smith’s goal-against record, despite being set during a different era, one of the most untouchable.
Smith’s Favourite Record – Penalty Minutes
Fans of the early days of the Islanders are very familiar with Smith’s tendency to chop down opposing players, especially those who got too close to the netminder. He collected 470 penalty minutes during his career, which is 341 more than DiPietro, who finished with 129. To add more perspective to Smith’s totals, he is the 23rd highest penalized Islander in history, following John Tonelli (473) and slightly ahead of Bryan McCabe (466).
Those numbers are insane when we remember that he was a goalie. He played the bulk of his career in the rough and tumble days of the 1970s, where line brawls were part of the game. No matter how you slice it, though, Smith averaged 27 penalty minutes a season, which seems high considering Tristan Jarry (Pittsburgh Penguins) led the league in minutes (eight) during the 2020-21 season.
For the sake of trying to figure out how to break Smith’s record, a goalie would need to average at least 31 penalty minutes throughout 15 seasons even to come close to surpassing one of the game’s fiercest competitors. Even if we were to factor in several fighting majors and misconducts a season, it seems almost impossible for someone to come along and supplant Smith as the franchise’s top goalie in penalty minutes.
Law of Averages
DiPietro came to the Islanders in 2000 at the ripe age of 19. He was supposed to be the future of the position in New York and the one who would help the team achieve success again. Unfortunately, injuries and lack of supporting cast hampered any shot the youngster had.
In hindsight, DiPietro was the only one billed with a legitimate shot at breaking several of Smith’s records. To demonstrate what a 19-year-old could do with the right team, let’s crunch some numbers and figure out if Smith would have any competition for his crown.
If the Islanders brought in a 19-year-old today who played 17 seasons as Smith did, this potential goalie could have record-breaking career totals. Of course, some goalies play more, and some pay less, so we are just going to split the season in half since many teams now deploy a goalie platoon. Teams don’t employ the same netminder for 70 games a season like the old days. Today, much emphasis is placed on rest, allowing for fresher minds and bodies for deep playoff runs.
At the end of this fictitious goalie’s 17-season career, he could appear in 697 games, win 425 games, lose 340 games, give up 1,700 goals, and play 41,820 minutes. Those are all estimates based on split duties, which means some seasons could feature higher numbers and some lower ones.
These are just numbers of the potential success a teenager can achieve with one team. As pointed out, though, the league leader in most categories today (Fleury) barely beats Smith’s record as a member of the Penguins, where he spent 13 seasons.
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After examining all of Smith’s numbers and adding up some estimates to see what the current Islanders’ tandem could achieve within their existing contracts, it is safe to say that Smith will maintain all his goalie records for at least another decade, if not longer.
They don’t make goalies like they used to, and today the NHL is run more like a business than a sports league. This model makes it challenging for players to spend their entire careers with one organization. Smith’s numbers in New York don’t seem unachievable, yet they feel impossible given the current landscape regarding the goaltender position in today’s game.
Ryan Gagne is one of the newest members of The Hockey Writers, covering the New York Islanders. He grew up in a small town in northern New Hampshire, where he idolized the Boston Bruins. Before moving to Canada in 2008, he was the equipment manager for his high school varsity hockey team and a sports journalist for the local newspapers. Ryan has been active in the hockey community, whether coaching, officiating, instructing, or playing. He is the ultimate rink rat with 19 years of experience making ice and driving the Zamboni. An avid fantasy sports player, Ryan created a blog, Keeping the Stats, where he dissects his teams and brags about his 2020 fantasy football championship. Outside of hockey, his life revolves around the New York Yankees, much to his wife’s chagrin.