A Two-Goalie System is Critical for NY Islanders' Success

Columbus Blue Jackets v New York Islanders
Columbus Blue Jackets v New York Islanders / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

Last week at the NHL Awards, NY Islanders backstop Ilya Sorokin finished second in voting for the Vezina Trophy as Linus Ullmark of the Boston Bruins was presented the award as the league's top goaltender. Sorokin has proven himself as one of the league's best between the pipes since entering the league - but future success for the Islanders during the regular season into the playoffs may lie with Semyon Varlamov.

Re-signing with the organization on the first day of free agency, Varlamov inked a four-year deal with a $2.75M AAV to remain with the Isles into the final stages of his career. Varlamov joined the Islanders in 2019 after Lou Lamoriello let Vezina finalist Robin Lehner walk after just one season. The go-to goaltender for three seasons before handing over the reins to Sorokin, Varlamov led the team to back-to-back Conference Finals appearances during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

Ullmark and partner in crime Jeremy Swayman were awarded the Jennings Trophy at the awards show, given to the duo to allow the least amount of goals throughout the regular season. Over the past five years, the team victorious of the Jennings Trophy has had incredible success throughout the regular season into the playoffs. Here are the winners over the past five seasons and where they finished in the regular season standings for their respective conferences:

2023: Boston Bruins, Linus Ullmark/Jeremy Swayman: 1st Eastern Conference
2022: Carolina Hurricanes, Frederik Andersen/Antti Raanta: 2nd Western Conference
2021: Vegas Golden Knights, Marc-Andre Fleury/Robin Lehner: 2nd Western Division
2020: Boston Bruins, Tuukka Rask/Jaroslav Halak: 1st Eastern Conference
2019: New York Islanders, Robin Lehner/Thomas Greiss: 4th Eastern Conference

Despite none of these teams claiming the Stanley Cup, having a go-to netminder is critical to a team's success, but a tandem through the rigors of a long season is the key to prosperity.

Sorokin is arguably the reason the Islanders made the playoffs in the first place, as Lane Lambert turned to his all-world netminder down the stretch allowing the Isles to clinch a playoff spot on the final night of the regular season, defeating the Montreal Canadiens.

While his numbers say otherwise, Sorokin didn't look himself during the first round of the playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes. An incredible weight was put on his shoulders during the regular season, appearing in 62 games - which may have caught up to him as the playoffs rolled around.

Varlamov, who appeared in 23 games last season, posted a 2.70 GAA, with a .913 SV% - a far cry from Sorokin's season, but still solid numbers for a backup goaltender.

Throughout his career, Varly has proven to play better with a more significant workload. As teams turn to a two-goalie system more across the league, the Islanders bringing back Varlamov will relieve some of the stress off Sorokin - especially if Lambert turns to his veteran backup more often throughout the year.

"I cannot really tell you that I think this question is not for me, you know, for management," Varlamov said about his contract situation. "But like I said, I would love to stay with a team. I have a good feeling about this team and about the future. So I want to be part of it."

The wear and tear of an 82-game schedule are enough to break down even the highest-quality goalies over time. Lamoriello and Lambert hope to see Sorokin at his best during the playoffs, which means working the backup goalie in more often. Sorokin and Varlamov are particularly close, with Sorokin going as far as to say Varly was one of his idols growing up.

“If you know anything about Varly, Ilya has been his man,” former Isles Head Coach Barry Trotz said in November of 2021. “They’re best friends, all that. He understands that… whenever his starting point is, it’s the same. The date might be different, but it’s the same.”

The extension given to Varlamov will keep him in blue and orange until he's 39. Though Varly will be 39 at the time his new deal is complete, he won't be facing the wear and tear of the starter's role, turned to 30-35 times a season. Just as importantly, he'll give a sense of comfort to Sorokin for four more years.