It’s been a difficult season to track. So far, the numbers suggest the New York Islanders aren’t a contender, but with games in hand and – dare we say – a little momentum building as the team gets healthier, this could change, especially if they can beat the right teams. That shift may be slower than usual considering the Islanders’ schedule over the next couple of weeks, or lack thereof. Another extended break could wreak havoc on the team in the short- and long-term, particularly if they consider moving goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Even with rising star Ilya Sorokin solidified on the team, it wouldn’t be wise to move Varlamov despite the suiters waiting in the wings.
NHL Scheduling Concerns
The NHL’s continued postponements and rescheduling are difficult to track and even harder to put on paper. News seems to drop randomly and without notice, which isn’t surprising at this point in the season. However, these changes have made it difficult for teams like the Islanders on many levels, though they seem to be taking their latest “break” in stride.
But this is where it gets interesting. By the time the Islanders play the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 13, they will have played just three games in 25 days. With no other games scheduled until then, those games will be pushed later into an already busy back half of the season. As of now, they will have to play their next 54 games in 106 days, or a little more than one game every other day. There are larger implications for the league if games continue to be postponed, but we’ll operate under the assumption the schedule will be ironed out.
With that in mind, even if head coach Barry Trotz decides Sorokin is the clear cut number one goalie moving forward, getting the lion’s share of starts, he’ll still have to lean heavily on Varlamov the rest of the way, especially if the team thinks they have the remote chance of making the playoffs.
“We could end up with (weeks) where we’re playing five games in seven nights. That takes its toll,” Trotz said last week. “But hopefully the schedule-maker can find enough dates to spread it out, and if we do that, we’ll be fine” (from “Islanders prepare for another season pause, just when they seem to be gaining momentum,” The Athletic, 1/1/22).
Though Sorokin has said he enjoys playing as often as he can, it doesn’t seem likely Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello will change their strategy. They’ve had success with a 1A/1B tandem, particularly over the last two playoff runs, when both Thomas Greiss and Sorokin filled in beautifully in consecutive seasons to get the Islanders over the hump.
Islanders Lack Goalie Depth
So, let’s say the Islanders decide to trade Varlamov, regardless of their playoff positioning. They don’t have another goalie in their system capable of picking up that slack, even if just for back-to-back situations. The organization only has three other goalies: Corey Schneider, Ken Appleby, and Jakub Skarek.
Between the latter two, only Appleby has played NHL games, three to be exact during the 2017-18 season with the Devils. That leaves Schneider, who we saw earlier this season as Sorokin’s backup, though there were never really any plans to start him unless there was an injury.
Worse, their problems won’t end this season. There’s a long-term issue brewing despite that New York landed their “white whale” in Sorokin if they trade Varlamov. Aside from not having much in the way of goalie prospects in their system to bring up or develop, certainly not by this summer, the UFA goalie market doesn’t look great heading into this offseason.
Jack Campbell will likely rejoin the Toronto Maple Leafs; Marc-Andre Fleury and former Islander Jaroslav Halak are pushing 40 years old (not that age has scared Lamoriello before) and don’t have dazzling numbers this season; the rest of the pending UFA goalies with 10 or more games played have sub-900 save percentages this season. The only goalie with decent numbers is former Washington Capital Braden Holtby.
He’s seen his numbers decline over the last few seasons, but he seems to be having an up season with the Dallas Stars, a team with a defensive style not unlike the Islanders. His $2 million cap hit is reasonable for a backup, which could be negotiated down a bit, but Trotz and Lamoriello would need to be ok with abandoning their 1A/1B strategy. Betting on a goalie who is on the wrong side of 30 without solid playing experience over the last few seasons doesn’t spell success at first or even second glance.
Varlamov Provides Stability
While Varlamov hasn’t been at his best – it’s important to remember he was out with an injury to start the season – he’s stopped 76 of 78 shots in his last two games, arguably as the Islanders have improved and are healthier in front of him. With just one year left on his deal, Lamoriello’s line, “If you have time, use it,” comes to mind. There’s no reason to trade a goalie for assets, only to struggle to find a replacement and maybe make a trade this summer, and the situation won’t get any easier in the summer of 2023.
For now, it’s best to hold on to Varlamov, playoffs or not, to keep the position solid moving forward for at least the next season and a half. It gives Sorokin a continued mentor and the rest of the team confidence in a goaltending tandem they’ve become comfortable with. As long as Varlamov can hold his own, he’s worth keeping around, at least until the end of his deal.
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.