New York Islanders goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss are off to a tremendous start in the 2019-20 season. Both veteran goalies are splitting time this season and it’s proving to be a smart strategy from head coach Barry Trotz.
After losing Vezina Trophy-finalist Robin Lehner to free agency on July 1, analysts and fans alike questioned whether or not New York could repeat what it did last year. Defensively, the Islanders had one of their best seasons ever. From the 2017-18 season to the 2018-19 season, New York trimmed off over 100 goals against, and finished in first in total goals against.
The Islanders are most recently coming off of a 10-game winning streak, the second longest winning streak in franchise history only behind a 15-game game streak in the 1981-82. What helped the team cruise past 10 opponents in a row was stability in net. As referenced on the MSG Network broadcast on Nov. 7, both goalies during the streak were 5-0-0 and Varlamov had a 1.58 goals-against average (GAA) and a .947 save percentage (SV%) while Greiss had a 1.80 GAA and a .942 SV%.
The Russian netminder joined the Islanders in the offseason via free agency after the team chose to move on from Lehner. Varlamov has had a longer career and solid numbers with the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche. He was only pushed out of Washington because he was outplayed for the starter position by a young prospect named Braden Holtby. In Colorado, Varlamov had one 41-win season and five seasons with 20 or more wins.
Varlamov looked a bit shaky at the beginning of his tenure with the Islanders. He started the season off with two losses. In one of those games, he allowed four goals on 19 shots. For the best defensive team in the previous season, it didn’t look like he was a good fit for the team’s scheme.
However, Varlamov settled down and strung together five straight wins, including a 27-save shutout against a strong Buffalo Sabres team. As time goes on, he looks more and more comfortable, which is important. Trotz’s defense-first scheme only faltered at points last year when players were either hurt or not doing their part. With everyone being there and helping each other out, it keeps the Islanders’ team-first strategy working well. That includes both goalies playing confidently and effectively.
Greiss has already been playing well and is picking up right where he left off last season. The German netminder has played angles well and left few opportunities on the table for the other team. He has allowed a total of 15 goals through eight appearances this year. Greiss already has a .937 SV% on the year and while that is expected to go down with more appearances, he looks to be in mid-season form.
Greiss has been with the Islanders since the 2015-16 season and has become a mainstay in net whether he was the designated starter or not. One of the aspects of his game that has won over the fans is that he can be called upon as little or as often as the team needs and he’ll be ready to go. According to Hockey-Reference, since joining the team, Greiss has played 170 games and has a record of 91-52-13 with a .917 SV% and a 2.65 GAA.
In 2016, he was called on when Jaroslav Halak went down with a hamstring injury. Greiss not only finished the season, but was a major reason why the Islanders won their first playoff series in 23 years against the Florida Panthers where he bolstered a .944 SV%.
Both goaltenders have played solid hockey early in the season. Historically, it hasn’t always been the goaltender’s fault when they lost a game. Sometimes, like on Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defense collapses. If the goalies can play how they’ve been playing and the defense stays on top of its game, the Islanders can definitely be playoff bound.
With a defense-first system and a team-first mentality, it doesn’t matter who starts in goal. There are two extremely reliable options as the last line of defense for New York.