Islanders Taking Big Gamble on Big Ticket Goaltending

Last season, the Vegas Golden Knights cruised through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, going 16-4 and taking the Final in only five games. Two of their best skaters, Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault, led the way by combining for 19 goals and 32 assists while a great defensive unit stifled opposing forwards. What makes the Golden Knights’ Cup run interesting is that they did it with Adin Hill as their goaltender. Hill started only 25 games in the 2022-23 season and wasn’t even the starter when the playoffs began but when he was called upon, he stepped up and led the team to their first Cup title in franchise history.

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The Golden Knights built their Cup team without investing in goaltending, spending under $10 million on the position. They seem like an outlier as a team that can win without investing in goaltending, specifically an elite player who can carry the team, but the Colorado Avalanche did the same thing a season before. They acquired Darcy Kuemper in the 2021 offseason and he only cost them $3.5 million against the salary cap yet he was able to help them make a Cup run. With the league continuing to shift to a more offensive-minded and speed-based game, the trend looks like teams will be forced to invest in more skilled skaters and as a result, spend a minimum on goaltending.

Enter the New York Islanders. General manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello signed veteran Semyon Varlamov to a four-year deal and extended rising star Ilya Sorokin for the next eight years.

Lou Lamoriello New York Islanders
Lou Lamoriello, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In a league that is more focused on speed and skill, Lamoriello remains focused on building the team from the net out, a resistance to the modern game. The question is if this is a wise decision. Will the investment in goaltending pay off or backfire? Any team would love to have elite goaltending but it comes with a cost and the Islanders will see that firsthand.

Islanders Can’t Invest Elsewhere

Starting in the 2024-25 season, the Islanders will spend $11 million on goaltending. In comparison, no other team in the Metropolitan Division will spend over $8 million on the unit this season, and barring any blockbuster signing, no team will eclipse that mark in 2024-25 either.

Granted, some teams pay top dollar for their goaltending. The Tampa Bay Lightning, a model franchise in recent seasons, pay Andrei Vasilevskiy $9.5 million per year and the Florida Panthers spend $10 million on Sergei Bobrovsky. Sorokin will be taking on the bigger cap hit with an $8.2 million per year deal but Varlamov as a backup is still taking up a lot of cap space.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders had an opportunity to cut corners by not re-signing Varlamov and signing a backup that makes under $2 million. Instead, the team has to cut corners elsewhere. The cost often results in the Islanders being unable to afford another depth forward. Occasionally, they come up short in the sweepstakes to sign a star skater and the lack of cap space is a big reason why. This offseason, they were one of the teams looking to acquire Alex DeBrincat but didn’t have the money to land the elite talent and he was dealt to the Detroit Red Wings in a blockbuster trade.

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If the Islanders managed to sign Alex Nedeljkovic, Alex Stalock, or Magnus Hellberg, all of whom were free agents this offseason, they would have saved at least $1 million in cap space. That might not seem like much but it would have gone a long way, especially if Lamoriello wanted to make a splash. Sure Varlamov is a reliable backup, making him a player worth investing in, but considering Sorokin starts at least 60 games a season, the Islanders just need someone to give their star the rare night off.

Semyon Varlamov New York Islanders
Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Golden Knights had a phase where they spent big on goaltending. At one point they had both Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner on their roster which provided stability in the net but hindered them elsewhere. With the team spending a minimum on the position in recent years, they used the remaining cap space to add stars to the top-six, forward depth, and secure a formidable defensive unit. In a hard cap league, the Islanders are using a lot of their space on a position that prevents them from building a great roster from the top down.

How Significant Is Elite Goaltending?

Lamoriello builds his teams with a strong emphasis on goaltending. It’s the formula that allowed the New Jersey Devils to win three Cup titles in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. The Devils would always have a formidable defense but most importantly, a goaltender that could carry them, specifically, Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. The Islanders have a similar roster structure and Lamoriello views this as the way to build a Cup contender.

Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils, Jan. 19, 2012 (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The problem is that the Devils were built to win the Cup in a different era than the Islanders. The late 90s started the era of elite goaltending with Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, and Ed Belfour leading the way. Goals were at a minimum and in order to win the Cup, a team needed a goaltender who could outduel the opponent in the other net.

The modern game has shifted and elite goaltending isn’t as vital. The best offenses will find the back of the net regardless of the opposing goaltender and the skilled skaters have proven that they can overwhelm and embarrass even the best in the game. Sorokin has shut down some of the best offenses in the NHL, most notably, the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 23 last season when he saved 49 shots in a 3-0 victory. However, even Sorokin can get overwhelmed by some of the opponents in today’s game, especially in a seven-game series against a high-flying offense.

Ilya Sorokin New York Islanders
Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Great goaltending raises the floor and makes a team competitive but great skaters raise the ceiling. The Islanders will be a borderline playoff team and with Sorokin starting 60 or more regular season games, they will be a wild card team at the least. The problem is that the Islanders lack the offense to make a run at the Cup. Last season, the lack of scoring was on full display as they were blanked in the first round by the Carolina Hurricanes in six games, scoring only 15 goals in the series. This offseason, they did little to address that need and instead are doubling down on a strength that has proven it can only take them so far.

Where The Islanders Have an Edge

The good thing about great goaltending is that it can and will raise the Islanders’ floor and particularly make them a playoff team. They aren’t the class of the Metropolitan Division like the Hurricanes or the Devils but they are right in the mix with the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, two good teams with question marks as well.

On the ice itself, the Islanders have the advantage on a nightly basis. They won’t have a better forward unit or the top-end talent that some of their opponents have but they’ll have the advantage in the net. Sorokin bailed the Islanders out of a lot of losses last season and will do so again with multiple lights-out performances.

There’s a common idea among the fans that the game has passed Lamoriello by and that he’s an aging GM who can’t catch up to the modern game. The goaltending investment backs that claim. However, just when he looks like he should be counted out and he’s put on the hot seat, the Islanders put together a strong season. Last season, he was on the firing line but the moves he made helped catapult the team back into the playoffs.

The Islanders will head into this season under the microscope. Lamoriello’s investment in goaltending doesn’t look like a wise one but it could ultimately be the reason the team makes the playoffs and has a chance at the Cup.

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