Can anyone blame New York Islanders fans for being upset with the departure of goaltender Robin Lehner as a free agent on July 1? After all, Lehner departed the team on a one-year, $5 million contract to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Islanders answer to their goaltending situation? Signing Colorado Avalanche castoff Semyon Varlamov to a four-year, $20-million contract.
So what went wrong with Lehner and can the Islanders coaching staff return Varlamov’s game to the Vezina Trophy consideration he received earlier in his career? Considering the miracle work Islander goaltending guru Mitch Korn and goalie coach Piero Greco did to rebuild Lehner’s game to see him nominated for the Vezina trophy after the 2018-19 season, and that Varlamov isn’t quite the same reclamation project, the dice roll is a worthy gamble.
Lehner Contract Negotiations Stalled
While it is always difficult to obtain credible information from any Lou Lamoriello-led organization, it was quite evident that negotiations with Lehner’s camp after the season weren’t progressing. Lehner had on multiple occasions professed his desire to remain with the Islanders, whether it was on a short term or long term deal. He loved Islander fans and they loved him back, supporting him as he came forward with his mental health struggles.
The first signs of outward discord happened during the NHL’s annual awards night. Upon winning the Masterton Trophy Lehner’s awkward hug with Lamoriello had Islander fans wondering on social media what was up. Perhaps Lehner’s propensity to speak out rubbed Lamoriello the wrong way. Or maybe Lamoriello who had attempted to trade for Varlamov leading up to the free-agent signing period during the summer of 2017 saw an opportunity to acquire a player the teams coaching staff had identified as a player they wanted.
Islanders Get Their Netminder
Either way, Lehner’s departure was awkward when it became known that a contract offer was pulled from the table without a response and Varlamov signed to replace him. So the Islanders replace a goalie that accomplished much in his one season with the team. A Jennings trophy shared with fellow goalie Thomas Greiss for fewest goals allowed, a Masterton Trophy and a Vezina nomination. Lehner’s Islanders tenure ended abruptly after one year with a 25-13-5 record, with a .930 save percentage (SV%) and a tidy 2.13 goals-against average (GAA).
Enter Varlamov, coming off a spotty 2018-19 season sporting a record of 20-19-9, .909 SV% and a 2.87 GAA. He hasn’t played in more than 60 games since 2013-14, a season in which he was nominated for the Vezina trophy and was a top-four finalist for the NHL’s MVP award. He has battled through a variety of ailments the past three seasons that have limited his appearances, including a career-low of 24 in 2016-17. The Islanders will once again be relying on Greiss to play 35-plus games in the final year of his three-year deal.
So how can Varlamov’s game be elevated to the lofty expectations the Islanders set with their historical transformation from most goals allowed in 2017-18 to least goals allowed in 2018-19 shaving off 100 goals – from 296 to 196.
It starts with Korn and Greco. The coaches expect a calm, steady, positionally sound technique in their goaltender’s foundation. The expectation is to rely less on reflex saves, instead being in the right spot so the puck finds the goalie. What will also aid the goalie is the Islanders defensive structure which attempts to limit shots to certain areas of the ice making the decision-making process for the goalie on where to expect the shot from.
The coaching tandem was also a big factor in Varlamov joining the Islanders.
“I’m very excited, I hear many good things from goalies who have worked with [Korn and Greco] in the past,” said Varlamov on a conference call with reporters after signing with the Islanders on July 1. “When I had to make a decision it was pretty easy for me. I wanted to work with them.”
While the difference in defensive structure from the Islanders to Avalanche resulted in only 85 fewer shots Islander goalies faced, the lower shot quality yielded by the Islanders resulted in 50 fewer goals than the Avalanche.
Varlamov also noted that one of the reasons he chose the Islanders over other suitors was the “team’s tight defensive structure” and that Barry Trotz coached teams have traditionally been hard teams to play against.
The Sorokin Factor
While no one will confirm an ulterior motive for a switch at the goalie position, fans connecting dots note that prized goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin could join the Islanders for the 2020-21 season after his KHL contract expires. Sorokin has an existing relationship with Varlamov, both are Russian, and could form an excellent goaltending tandem into the future.
While his game may have taken a step back during the 2018-19 season, a return to career norms of a 2.68 GAA and a .916 SV% should be the starting point for what Varlamov can accomplish. Islander fans should be excited with their new goalie while celebrating the accomplishments of their former goalie. While Varlamov has large pads to fill he is more than capable and the Islanders believe their goalie gamble is the right call.