The New York Islanders look primed to compete in the Metropolitan Division yet again due in large part to solid goaltending. Despite losing longtime netminder Thomas Greiss in free agency, the Islanders are hoping their goaltender of the future has arrived.
It remains to be seen how the workload will be split next season, and much of that will depend on how the season is structured. No matter what the season looks like, the Islanders are confident in their goaltenders and their system. The concern, however, may lie in the depth beyond the NHL roster.
Semyon Varlamov impressed in his first season on Long Island, starting 39 games and winning 19 of them as he anchored the team along their deep playoff run. He also won 11 of 19 playoff starts and posted the best playoff peripherals of his long career. The longtime Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche goaltender formed one of the league’s best goalie duos with Thomas Greiss, highlighted by the team’s 17-game point streak early last season.
Now entering his second season under coach Barry Trotz, Varlamov figures to enter training camp as the starter as the team’s veteran goalie. He should, however, eventually give up some starts to his new partner, who the team hoped he would be able to lure to North America.
The Islanders and their fans are eagerly waiting to see how the NHL’s next young Russian goalie will fare. Ilya Sorokin comes to the Islanders bringing a track record of utter dominance in the KHL over the last seven seasons as a starting goalie. Over these seven seasons, Sorokin had a goals-against-average (GAA) of over 2.00 just twice.
He capped off his strong career in Russia this past season with a 1.50 GAA and a .935 save percentage (SV%) across 40 starts. He added to an already impressive season with a 0.73 GAA and .966 SV% in four playoff appearances. The team is hoping that his absurd numbers playing in the KHL will allow him to have similar success against NHL talent. Having Varlamov to take some pressure off of him and provide mentorship and guidance should allow Sorokin to adjust to the NHL game and eventually be ready to be a No. 1 goalie.
Although the team has yet to make it official, all signs are pointing to an agreement with veteran goaltender Cory Schneider. The longtime netminder for Vancouver and New Jersey, Schneider brings much-needed experience to a Bridgeport AHL team that lost two of its three goalies from last season.
Schneider played for general manager Lou Lamoriello during his time with the Devils, and makes a lot of sense for a Bridgeport team without much goaltending experience. The 34-year-old should also get a chance to work with the tremendous goaltending coaches for the Islanders, who were able to resurrect the career of Robin Lehner and elevate the games of both Greiss and Varlamov.
After losing his job in New Jersey and finding himself in the AHL for a brief time, Schneider and the Islanders both are hoping that joining the franchise could bring out the best in the veteran.
Until the Schneider deal becomes official, Jakub Skarek is the most experienced goaltender in the Islanders’ system with only 30 total games played in North America. The third-round pick in 2018 split time last season between the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL and the ECHL’s Worcester Railers. He struggled to adjust to the game in North America, winning just six total games and is off to a shaky start while on loan to Finnish team Heinolan Peliitat to start the 2020-21 season.
After going 3-10-1 with Bridgeport last season, Skarek looks poised to see more action after the team lost its other two goalies from last season. Still just 21 years old, Skarek could benefit greatly from the presence of Schneider and a decent supporting cast with some NHL experience mixed in.
The Islanders added another goalie to their system in the final round of this year’s entry draft, selecting Tikkanen 214th overall. The 6-foot-8 goaltender is playing well so far this season, posting a 2.54 GAA and a .901 SV% through nine games for IPK of Finland’s Mestis.
The 20-year-old has yet to sign his entry-level contract and figures to take a few years before he’s ready to appear in North America. He posted save percentages below .900 in each of the last two seasons, but building on his strong start to 2020-21 could expedite his development. The Islanders are comfortable with their group for now, but would certainly like to have another option in the future.
All Eyes on Bridgeport
The Islanders have tons of confidence in the tandem they’re rolling out for the 2020-21 season, and for good reason. Sorokin may have growing pains, but the team can rely on Varlamov to perform well until the rookie is fully adjusted. The concern for the team is at the AHL level after losing longtime third goalie Christopher Gibson.
If Schneider does sign, he will provide stability for the time being, but the long-term solution remains to be seen. With or without Schneider, next season will be a big one for Skarek to prove he can be the next man up between the pipes for years to come.
Covering the New York Islanders and Seattle Kraken for The Hockey Writers. MBA Sports & Entertainment Management Candidate at Hofstra University. Formerly Marketing Intern with the American Flag Football League & Operations Intern for the Long Island Nets, G-League Affiliate of the Brooklyn Nets.