There are some excellent goaltending tandems in the NHL today – Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman in Boston, and in Minnesota, Marc-Andre Fleury and Filip Gustavsson – but the very best 1-2 punch in net might very well be Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov.
The Islanders are an uneven group, but they depend on the 27-year-old Sorokin and, to a lesser degree, the 34-year-old Varlamov to keep them in games. And the two Russian netminders are delivering better-than-average results.
Sorokin has made 28 appearances for the Isles this season – putting him in a five-way tie for first place in the NHL (along with fellow stars Jake Oettinger of Dallas, Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers, Connor Hellebuyck of Winnipeg and Jordan Binnington of St. Louis) in that category. And Sorokin’s individual stats (including a .926 save percentage and 2.30 goals-against average) put him in the running for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. Sorokin is among the best bargains around with a $4-million annual salary.
Varlamov also has put up solid numbers this season (2.65 GAA, .919 SP) in 12 appearances, but clearly, he’s the understudy to Sorokin. Varlamov will likely have to accept a pay cut on his current $5-million salary when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, but it’s not going to be as big of a haircut as some may suspect.
Even in his mid-thirties, he’ll be seen by at least a few teams as a worthy short-term investment. The cap-challenged Islanders – who, as per Cap Friendly, have just $9.6 million in cap space with 16 players under contract for 2023-24 – probably won’t be able to retain his services beyond this season.
That would be a problem if Sorokin weren’t so good. Like fellow Russian goaltenders Shesterkin and current Avalanche goalie Alexandar Georgiev, you see nothing but improvement from Sorokin season after season. The defense corps that plays in front of him is far from the NHL’s best, and the Islanders’ forward unit has been decimated by an injury bug that also has taken a bite out of Varlamov, who is currently sidelined with a lower-body injury.
If Sorokin is hurt, the Isles’ next option in net is 39-year-old Cory Schneider, who hasn’t played an NHL game since April 3, 2022 – the only NHL game he appeared in the entire season. The margin for error on the goaltender front cannot be thinner for the Isles.
Sorokin set new personal highs last season in appearances (52), wins (26) and SP (.925), but this year, he’s on pace to make 60 appearances and win 28 games. In the modern NHL, that’s about as much of a workhorse effort as you’ll see. Ideally, the Islanders would want to use Varlamov more often to keep Sorokin fresh once the post-season begins.
The problem is, of course, that it’s going to be a monster battle just to make the playoffs, which necessitates the use of Sorokin just about 75 percent of the time.
In a way, that’s a compliment to Sorokin. He’s asserted himself as an elite goalie, and you can’t fault first-year Isles coach Lane Lambert for leaning on him as much as he does.
There’s a reason why the NHL has become more of a tandem-goalie league: the wear and tear on goaltenders is a real factor in any given team’s success, and the depth teams are looking for at forward and on defense is even more of an issue in net.
In Sorokin and Varlamov, the Islanders have two experienced hands that can be difference-makers. Lambert’s job is to provide balance in net while also trying to keep his team in the playoff race. Sorokin, primarily, will decide how things turn out in that regard.