New York Islanders: Semyon Varlamov Gives Isles Best Chance to Win

Semyon Varlamov #40 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Semyon Varlamov #40 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

In this chaotic NHL season, strong goaltending duos will dictate the success of many clubs, including the New York Islanders.

The New York Islanders have been trying to master the goalie tandem technique over their recent past. In 2018, Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss won the Jennings Trophy, as both goaltenders were dominant in what was a successful season. Last season, first-year Islander Semyon Varlamov split time with Greiss, before becoming the unnamed number one netminder down the stretch and in the Playoffs.

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But this year, the Islanders have to handle their tandem differently. Prized possession Ilya Sorokin, who the team drafted back in 2014, is now with the club. Head Coach Barry Trotz stated that both goaltenders would get work this season but, based on Varlamov’s stellar performances in the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoffs and Training Camp, he would be the number one.

Out of the gate, Varlamov has been on his game. He is 3-0-0, with a 0.33 GAA, a .988 SV%, and two shutouts. After picking up the win against the New Jersey Devils last Thursday, I truly believed he would be back in there for the rematch last night.

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Barry Trotz thought otherwise, as Sorokin got his second NHL start. His first NHL start came back on Jan.16 against the New York Rangers, in which his team was outmatched, losing 5-0. Not to mention, Sorokin was thrown into the fire after a freak warmup injury to Varlamov. Following his initial performance, it was clear it would take some time for the Russian prodigy to get acclimated to the speed and skill of the NHL game.

Just as we saw in his first start, the team played poorly around him, failing to score yet again. That is six goal-less periods with Sorokin in net.

Semyon Varlamov (40)
Semyon Varlamov #40 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The New York Islanders Have Played Better With Semyon Varlamov Between the Pipes than Sorokin

The Islanders have only been able to pick up wins with Varlamov in net so far after five games in the 2020-21 season. They played strong in two out of three of his starts, as in the 1-0 win against the Boston Bruins on Jan. 10, the Islanders struggled mightily. But thanks to the defense and some big saves from Varlamov, the Islanders escaped unscathed.

Results are results. Early on this season, the team is more comfortable playing their style of hockey when the grizzled vet is in the crease rather than the young stud. Varlamov has played to a GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average) of 6.76 while Sorokin sees his GSAA at a -1.7.

Trotz’s job as a coach is to give his team the best chance at coming away with two points. Early on in the season, he wants to provide Sorokin with work. This makes sense, as he needs to get him comfortable in the net, and the only way for that to happen is by getting NHL minutes under his belt.

Given the 56-game schedule, it is more critical than ever to get off to a strong start. The Islanders were facing a Devils team that had surprised many out of the gate with their play. But the Islanders cruised to a win last Thursday against them, and while the Devils played better, it was the Islanders’ mistakes and lackadaisical effort that cost them the two points.

Last night was a winnable game. The Islanders just failed to show up.

In a short season like this, playing Sorokin will be a gamble until he looks the part. He vastly improved from start one to start two, but his performance is not the issue. It’s the team in front of him.

In the three starts for Varlamov, the Islanders are averaging 28.3 shots on goal per sixty minutes, with 3.00 goals per game. With Sorokin in net, the Islanders are averaging 25.5 shots per game and 0.00 goals. To take this a step further, the Islanders’ opponents are averaging 3.0 takeaways per game when Varlamov is in. With Sorokin playing, the opponents are averaging 12 takeaways.

This means that the Islanders are struggling to possess the puck for whatever reason when Sorokin gets the start.

The Islanders now face a team twice that is COVID-riddled. The Washington Capitals broke coronavirus protocols the league had in place, resulting in not just a $100,000, but the loss of four players to the NHL’s COVID-19 List. Peter Laviolette, the Capitals Head Coach, is without forwards Alex Ovechkin & Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and netminder Ilya Samsonov. These players will be unable to play in both meetings with the Islanders this week. Power forward Tom Wilson is banged up as well, with his status unknown.

With a back-to-back schedule this upcoming weekend against the Philadelphia Flyers, Ilya Sorokin will play either of the two. Against the Capitals this week, Varlamov should get both games.

Trotz knows he must take advantage of the unfortunate circumstances revolving around his former team. There are four crucial points to be had here, and the goaltender that gives his team the best chance at taking all four needs to be present in the crease.

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Now, there is no reason that Ilya Sorokin should not have success when he gets his minutes. The Islanders are one of the best defensive-minded teams in the entire NHL, allowing Sorokin to work on the little things, like focusing more on tracking outside shots and controlling his rebounds. In the two games he’s played, his team has not given him a chance to get comfortable. Every shot is a must-stop if his team is not going to find the back of the net.