On Tuesday, Feb. 16, Ilya Sorokin started for the New York Islanders. Not only did he earn his first career win, but he also earned a shutout in the process. The response from head coach Barry Trotz and the Islanders coaching staff was to start Seymon Varlamov for the next three games. In addition, the coaching staff sent Sorokin to the taxi squad on Saturday, further raising questions about the Islanders’ goaltending situation for the remainder of the season. The bottom line is that Varlamov needs to start splitting time in goal as the season progresses, and the 25-year-old Sorokin has to be strongly considered.
The Islanders Can’t Afford to Overwork Varlamov
Varlamov has been exceptional this year, boasting a .927 save percentage and allowing only 2.06 goals per game – both marks are on pace to be the best of his 13-year career. It’s hard to bench a goaltender that is playing as well as he is but the Islanders need to avoid overworking Varlamov with the condensed schedule and the number of starts that he is projected. Already starting 14 of the 18 games played this season, the Islanders starting goaltender is on pace to start 42 games this season, which would be more than the 39 he started last season.
The big issue with Varlamov starting an overwhelming majority of the games is the issue of him being overworked. Throughout the NHL, we are seeing starting goaltenders starting to decline in their play with the workload and number of starts (goalies like Jacob Markstrom and Carter Hart are two superb goalies that come to mind as being overworked). While Varlamov might not be dropping off in his production anytime soon, the number of games started in a condensed season is going to catch up to him and the Islanders need to be able to keep their star goalie fresh for the latter part of the season and most importantly, a potential playoff run.
Sorokin is Improving
Sorokin had everything go wrong for him in his first career start, allowing five goals against the Rangers and taking poor angles to the puck throughout the game. Despite failing to receive goal support, Sorokin played respectably in his next two starts despite the performances turning into losses, allowing only two goals against the Devils and four goals in overtime to the Flyers. In his first career win, we saw the true promise and hype that was expected from a goalie that had already proven himself in Russia, with a 3-0 shutout victory which included some pivotal saves to clinch the game.
The big picture indicates that Sorokin is improving and can be a viable backup for the future. The Islanders should try to give him more starts in the upcoming weeks with the hope that he can become the goaltender of the future. It’s understandably going to be risky to start the 25-year-old goalie when the Islanders are in a competitive playoff race that will only intensify as the season goes along, but if Sorokin continues to improve, as he has shown in the four games he has started, the Islanders are going to ultimately benefit and have a more complete roster.
The Islanders Must Find Out What They Have in Sorokin
It’s clear this season that in order to be a good or even great team in the NHL, two goaltenders are required. Many of the top teams in the NHL are recognizing the importance of a viable backup in a condensed season that can easily tire out any star in the net. The Islanders need to know if Sorokin is able to start enough games to keep Varlamov fresh for the season and hopefully the playoffs. Leaving him on the bench, or rarely starting the 25-year-old goalie, is not going to provide answers. This season is going to require the Islanders to have, at some point, two goaltenders and if Sorokin isn’t the answer as a backup, the front office needs to find one sooner rather than later.
What if Sorokin Isn’t the Answer at Backup?
If the Islanders find out that Sorokin isn’t ready to backup Varlamov for the upcoming season, the team must search for alternative options. The first name that comes to mind is the goalie that rotates time on the taxi squad with Sorokin in 34-year-old veteran Cory Schneider. Schneider can be a good backup but it’s hard to tell if the Islanders would feel comfortable with him starting a decent number of games with playoff or even Stanley Cup aspirations. If a backup is not on the roster, it would come as no surprise if the front office chooses to make a move at the trade deadline to acquire one, especially if the team is looking to compete in the playoffs this season.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.