Islanders Face Goaltending Questions Due to Cap Crunch

It’s no secret that the New York Islanders, along with many other teams across the NHL, will be in a cap crunch heading into the 2020-21 season and beyond. Revenues have taken an enormous hit during the COVID-19 pandemic with the future murky at best, particularly in regard to fans returning to games – a major funding source. The flat cap of $81.5 million for the next season with the possibility of an incremental increase after will have teams thinking creatively about their rosters. Add to that the addition of the Seattle Kraken and the expansion draft in the summer of 2021 and it’s a recipe for chaos.

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For the Islanders, the plot thickens when you consider restricted free agents Mathew Barzal, Devon Toews, and Ryan Pulock need new contracts at the conclusion of the 2019-20 campaign and newly signed Ilya Sorokin will be joining the mix in 2020-21. How can general manager Lou Lamoriello be innovative moving forward? One option may be to trade goalie Semyon Varlamov and re-sign UFA goaltender Thomas Greiss.

Trading Varlamov

In this week’s 31 Thoughts, Elliot Friedman’s 14th point considered the Islanders trading Varlamov to open up cap space for the cash strapped club. This is an interesting thought when you consider Varlamov has another three seasons at $5 million against the cap. Moving his contract could really help the team moving forward, especially if Greiss signs a team-friendly deal below $5 million.

14. Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov, Islanders. We know Ilya Sorokin’s going to be a factor next year. Varlamov still has term and Greiss is a UFA, so the obvious move is the former stays and the latter walks. But New York faces a cap crunch. What if Greiss outplays his partner? Could they offer him a friendlier deal and try to move Varlamov?

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What may make this even more intriguing to Lamoriello is if Greiss outplays Varlamov, as Friedman suggested, and steals the No. 1 job heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. As of two days before the Islanders exhibition game against the New York Rangers, just a few days prior to the start of their qualifying round series against the Florida Panthers, head coach Barry Trotz has not made a decision on who will start on Saturday. In fact, both goalies will be getting time in Wednesday’s matchup with the Rangers as Trotz finalizes his lineup.

However, according to an article by The Athletic’s Arthur Staple, published hours after Friedman’s and seemingly in direct response to the comment, the idea of trading Varlamov may make sense on the surface, but there are things that could get in the way. Consider Varlamov’s age. He’s 32 and will have just turned 35 at the end of his deal, still making the aforementioned $5 million per season, begging the question asked by Staple, “It’s a nice idea, but are there teams in the flat-cap era that will be eager to trade for a 32-year-old goalie with three seasons left at $5 (million)? Unlikely.” (From, ‘Varlamov vs. Greiss: Who has the edge to start in net for the Islanders?’, The AthleticNHL – 7/27/20).

It’s difficult not to see Staple’s point here, but either way, tough decisions need to be made by Lamoriello if the Islanders want to stay competitive next season and beyond. Could this be one of them, especially if he can get a good return?

Re-signing Greiss

There is a good argument to be had on why re-signing Greiss is a great answer for the Islanders, a thought that goes beyond simply trading Varlamov to save cap space. The team has deployed some sort of two-goalie system over the last five seasons or so with positive results.

Thomas Greiss New York Islanders
Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Greiss seems to be at his best when he plays just over 40 games and hasn’t slowed down much despite being 34 years old. That may have to do with the fact that he has never been a full-time starter in the NHL and has stayed relatively healthy throughout his career. His demeanor and history with the team in a platooned approach, more and more common in the league these days, also helps make the case for keeping him to play alongside Sorokin.

Keeping Varlamov

The cap situation aside, keeping Varlamov, a fellow Russian, in the mix would surely be a huge help to Sorokin, who has never played in North America. Having Varlamov to show him the ropes would go a long way towards his development as he begins to trust the Islanders’ coaching staff and management.

Semyon Varlamov New York Islanders
Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Trotz also seems to lean towards Varlamov, and Robin Lehner last season, over Greiss. While their numbers were close overall and at 5-on-5, Greiss started 10 fewer games during the 2019-20 regular season, showing Trotz’s trust in Varlamov even when the team was struggling after the calendar turned to 2020.

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At the end of the day, the Islanders are left with a tough decision and, frankly, two good answers. Both have played well with the Islanders so far and would be great to play alongside Sorokin during the 2020-21 season. For Lamoriello to trade Varlamov, a lot of things would have to work out, including a trade partner that is on Valamov’s trade-list. With all of this said, signs point to Varlamov staying with the Islanders, though if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.