Until Barry Trotz and his company of goalie whisperers (Pierre Grecco and Mitch Korn) arrived, the Islanders’ goaltending carousel, and defense in general, struggled mightily for decades. Over the last three seasons, and the beginning of the 2021-22 campaign, it’s been the team’s backbone. The carousel finally stopped spinning for the 2020-21 season when Ilya Sorokin, aka “The White Whale,” landed in North America to begin his NHL career alongside veteran Semyon Varlamov.
Fast forward through the 2020-21 season, and long playoff run, and Sorokin is now leading the Islanders to victory after victory, with Varlamov playing just one game so far this season due to injury. Sorokin’s ability to quickly adapt to NHL play with just 38 games of total NHL experience (regular reason and playoffs, combined, as of the publishing of this article) has been nothing short of an MVP performance.
Sorokin Steps up
The Islanders rely heavily on their defense and goaltending, and when the former breaks down, as it has at times this season, the player between the pipes needs to be on top of their game. And boy, has Sorokin been there for his teammates, and they’re aware of their goalie’s hard work.
The Islanders are 5-3-2 heading into the last three games of their 13-game road trip, and Sorokin is the reason they’re not looking too far up the standings early in the season. So far, the 26-year-old Russian goaltender has a 6.4 goals saved above expected (according to MoneyPuck) to go along with a .939 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. And as much as the defense has been faulty this season and not at their best, they’re starting to play “Islander defense” in front of their goaltenders.
“We know our goaltending is very strong and very capable,” head coach coach Barry Trotz said Saturday night during his post-game media availability. “You look at the certain stats, you can really tell your team is playing as a team and connected to each other. I like that we had 19 blocked shots. Winnipeg puts a lot of pressure on your net … and we had 19 or 20 blocked shots.”From, “Sorokin makes 24 saves, Islanders shut out Jets,” NHL.com 11/6/2021
Sorokin is a much more energetic and flamboyant goalie then Varlamov, who is very calm, cool, and collected between the pipes. But his style doesn’t put him out of position and he remains steady despite some hectic moments around the crease, leading to three shutouts in his last five starts.
“He’s so steady,” Anders Lee said after yet another shutout, this time against Winnipeg this past weekend. “You can just see it in his eyes how calm he is back there, how poised he is. He’s never out of a save.”
Even though it’s been a struggle to build momentum for the Islanders with large breaks in their schedule, Sorokin has picked up the slack night after night. Now, with Varlamov healthy and a game under his belt against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday, Sorokin’s workload may lighten as the season progresses. However, it may be his net to lose despite Trotz’s insistence the goalies will rotate. Do you keep playing the hot hand? As the schedule picks up and gets back to normal, we’ll find our answer.
For now, Sorokin remains the Islanders’ MVP early in the season, and may continue to get the bulk of the starts for the next little while. This team would surely be in a difficult position without him in the lineup, especially after Varlamov was injured. Trotz’s confidence in both of his goalies and the teams awkward start to the season allowed their tandeum to reunite while staying in hunt within a tough Metropolitant Division.
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.