Islanders Need Bounce Back Season from Varlamov

The New York Islanders missed the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs by 16 points last season, a seemingly huge mountain to climb for a team that struggled mightily in 2021-22. A return to the playoffs appears all the more difficult considering, at the time this is being written, general manager Lou Lamoriello has only upgraded the defense so far this offseason when he traded the team’s 13th overall pick in the 2022 Draft for Alexander Romanov. The lack of offseason movement is concerning as the rest of the Metropolitan Division has improved and the Eastern Conference looks to be more crowded around the playoff bubble, it’s difficult to ignore that number – 16. Is that insurmountable? How can the Islanders find 16 points in the standings? The answer is goaltender Semyon Varlamov.

Islanders’ Varlamov Key to Success

Before we get too far, yes – the Islanders need to add another piece to their forward group and need their veterans to find the back of the net more consistently. You won’t find an argument against both of those, and a continued lackluster summer is unacceptable. However, looking at Varlamov’s numbers, specifically the straightforward wins and losses, his 10-17-2 record is a huge reason the Islanders couldn’t fight their way back into the playoff conversation. Like the team in front of him, there are plenty of valid reasons this past season was difficult, coming off of an injury chief among them.

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

For the 2022-23 season, the Islanders need Varlamov to return to his numbers from both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, 19-14-6 in 39 starts and 19-11-4 in 35 starts respectively. Varlamov’s partner, youngster Ilya Sorokin, has proven he can carry the majority of games moving forward, starting 52 last season to Varlamov’s 29 and doing so in spectacular style considering the team in front of him on most nights. The Islanders would ideally be aiming to start Varlamov about the same number of games in the upcoming season as they did in 2021-22, in and around 30 games, which is a manageable number. They do, however, need him to win just over half of those games and steal some extra points in a few others, a sticking point to the Islanders’ success this past season.

Related: Islanders 2022 Offseason at a Standstill

At 10-17-2, a reversal of those numbers – approximately one extra win a month for the team, a tough pill to swallow upon reflection – would have put them bumper-to-bumper with the Washington Capitals for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s not too big of an ask for the veteran goalie who helped get the Islanders to back-to-back Stanley Cup semifinal appearances with a bigger workload than what will likely be asked of him next season. But again, with a lighter workload, and a revamped defensive corps, perhaps he can get back to form and elevate the Islanders once again.

Islanders Won’t Find Varlamov Replacement

There’s been a lot of talk about trading Varlamov, who sports a modified no-trade clause, and his $5 million cap hit to bring in a forward. That’s definitely low-hanging fruit for Lamoriello to consider, though he’s been adamant for months that Varlamov is an important piece of the Islanders.

“He’s important to the growth and maturity of Ilya Sorokin,” Lamoriello said in March. “Everyone is always looking for goaltenders and you don’t give up a goaltender to make another position better and make a bigger hole. You can make all these splashes in the world, but you have to look at the big picture.”

Lamoriello recently doubled down on those comments when asked about sticking with Sorokin and Varlamov as the team’s tandem. “That’s my feeling,” Lamoriello said at the 2022 NHL Draft. “I’ve said it from day one and I feel that way today” (from “Islanders plan to stick with Semyon Varlamov-Ilya Sorokin tandem,” New York Post, 7/9/2022).

Even if Varlamov’s $5 million is difficult to swallow, who could the Islanders trust more than him to reach a record of, say, on the low end, 17-10-4? Is it worth overpaying for the insurance of a Varlamov or should Lamoriello roll the dice on a $2-3 million goalie while saving a few million against the cap? The latter doesn’t seem worth it considering what we know Varlamov can do when healthy. If Sorokin managed an identical record and Varlamov could pull off 17-10-4 in 31 starts, that would give the Islanders 98 points – right in the mix.

Entering the final year of Varlamov’s current four-year, $20 million contract, you could imagine he’ll be raising his game for his next deal, and the Islanders need him to do so regardless of the motivation if they plan on making the playoffs. A full offseason to recover from his injury and re-focus could make a huge difference for the 34-year-old netminder as he tries to return to form.

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