The New York Islanders are in a difficult position. With Robin Lehner expected to miss the entire 2022-23 season, leaving the Vegas Golden Knights without a starting goaltender, the Islanders may be grappling with whether or not to trade goaltender Semyon Varlamov. With one year left at $5 million, Vegas might entertain a deal that brings him out west. Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello has been clear about keeping his tandem of Ilya Sorokin and Varlamov together, so unless he’s blown away by a deal, this is extremely unlikely. However, there’s a key question to consider if a deal were to take place – how would they fill the backup role behind Sorokin?
Islanders’ Pros to Trading Varlamov
The low-hanging fruit here is that trading Varlamov helps the team get $5 million off the books, less whatever it would cost to get a backup for Sorokin. He may also be a good trade chip to get a top-six winger from the Golden Knights. If Josh Bailey is indeed on his way out and Nazem Kadri on his way to the Island, some shuffling of the offense may need to be in order, including finding space for another winger and figuring out where Kadri would fit in.
It’s unknown what a return for Varlamov would be, but Vegas might be willing to make the trade and it could be the team’s best option, according to The Athletic‘s Jessie Granger. “The situation that sticks out the most to me is on Long Island, where Ilya Sorokin has clearly taken the reins as the starting goalie but veteran Semyon Varlamov still has one year remaining on his deal…Varlamov’s $5 million cap hit would fit easily into Vegas’ cap once Lehner is placed on LTIR (Long Term Injured Reserve), and he could be available if the Islanders are looking to open up cap space” (from ‘Who will Golden Knights turn to with Robin Lehner out for the season? Exploring the options’, The Athletic, 8/11/22).
Even if the Islanders are able to simply get picks and a prospect in return from Vegas, opening up the $5 million is no small feat and one that would benefit the team in the short and near term. Lamoriello needs to be cap compliant by the beginning of the season, and it wouldn’t hurt to have some extra wiggle room at the deadline if the team needs a jolt.
Lamoriello hasn’t been shy about making a deal at the deadline, save for last season, acquiring both J.G. Pageau from the Ottawa Senators and Kyle Palmieri from the New Jersey Devils in consecutive seasons. Perhaps he opens significant cap space by trading both Varlamov and Bailey, adding Kadri, and waits to add another top-six piece at the deadline?
Islanders Cons to Trading Varlamov
Even if Sorokin is the clear-cut number one goalie moving forward, getting the lion’s share of starts, there are still about 25 to 30 other games the Islanders will need a backup goalie to start in. Despite Varlamov’s lackluster 10-17-2 performance last season, his ability to raise his game has been well documented during his time on Long Island, as he’s only one season, and a serious injury, removed from an amazing season in tandem with Sorokin. The two could seriously help the Islanders get back into the playoffs even if, at the very least, Varlamov could bounce back and reverse his 2021-22 numbers and go 17-10-2 in 29 games. Is there a goalie on the market capable of winning a hair more than 15 games? Not likely.
Looking internally, the Islanders don’t have another goalie in their system capable of picking up that slack, even if it’s just for back-to-back situations. The organization only has two other goalies on contracts: 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. Corey Schneider, who we saw earlier last season as Sorokin’s backup, is still unsigned and, despite his good numbers with the Bridgeport Islanders in the regular season and playoffs, there were never really any plans to start him unless there was an injury, and is certainly not much of an option as a full-time backup.
Trading Varlamov would also go against what Lamoriello has been saying for much of this year – that the tandem is important to the team’s success as well as Sokrin’s future. “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.”
The last line is a good argument on its own to keep Varlamov, but adding in Sorokin’s growth and how important Varlamov is to continuing Sorokin’s success adds an important layer. It also nearly eliminates the opportunity that Varlamov could return on a cheaper $2-3 million salary for a few years after this season. As such, it might be worth biting the bullet on the extra few million if it means you have the future solidified, especially considering the lack of talent in their system.
It isn’t worth overpaying for the insurance of Varlamov instead of gambling on a $2-3 million goalie just to save a few million against the cap. Having said that, you could see why if Lamoriello was able to get a good return from a team like the Golden Knights, he would have to at least consider making the move. At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t seem worth it considering what we know Varlamov can do when healthy and the lack of available goaltenders that could match his ability, even if they’re marginally cheaper.
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.