On July 1st, Ilya Sorokin and the New York Islanders agreed to an eight-year contract extension worth $66 million. With a salary cap hit of $8.25M AAV, Sorokin’s extension has a chance to reset the market for elite goaltenders seeking long-term extensions, such as Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets and Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers, both of whom will be eligible for new contracts in the near future.
The contract also had added significance for long-time fans of the Islanders and was an exclamation point on the growing trend of players wanting to stay on Long Island and the team having the resources to make that happen. Of course, Sorokin wasn't the only player to sign an extension that day; there was also defenseman Scott Mayfield, forward Pierre Engvall, and Sorokin's partner in goal, Semyon Varlamov.
For the previous thirty years or so, that wasn't the case, and the idea that the team’s franchise player signed a maximum-term extension on the first day he was eligible to do so is the clearest sign yet of a reborn franchise that has turned the corner.
After the success of the team in the early 1980s, things began to spiral out of control when superstar forward Pat LaFontaine failed to report to the team for the 1991-92 NHL season due to a contract dispute. This would not be the last time unstable ownership and incompetent management would negatively affect the organization. Things only got worse when in 1995, Islanders GM Don Maloney traded popular star and newly-inducted Hockey Hall of Famer Pierre Turgeon to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for forward Kirk Muller, who refused to report to the team. After relenting and reporting to the team, Muller’s attitude was deemed so problematic that he was sent home and eventually traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Around this same time, the Islanders were introducing another homegrown star to their supporters. Zigmund Palffy, affectionately known on Long Island as “Ziggy,” made his debut for five games during the 1993-94 season. While the team was struggling on the ice, “Ziggy” was lifting fans out of their seats on a regular basis. From 1995-96 to 1997-98, Palffy scored 43, 48, and 45 goals, becoming a premier offensive talent in the league. But instead of fostering this relationship, the Islanders were facing financial difficulties, and owners Howard Millstein and Steven Gluckstern ordered GM Mike Milbury to pare back payroll to the barest levels. After a potential trade to the rival New York Rangers fell through, Palffy was traded to the Los Angeles Kings after the 1998-99 season.
Ultimately, Millstein and Gluckstern sold the Islanders to Charles Wang, who invested in the roster before the 2001-02 season by acquiring stars such as Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca, and Chris Osgood. After a few exciting seasons filled with postseason hockey, the Islanders settled into a rebuild under new GM Garth Snow after players like Ryan Smyth and Chris Drury declined the Islanders’ advances. Moreover, the memory most associated with Smyth during his Islanders tenure was the image of him crying upon hearing the news of the trade.
The seminal moment of the rebuild came in June 2009, when the Islanders selected center John Tavares first overall in the NHL draft. Tavares became arguably the finest player in franchise history, post-dynasty. But when his second contract expired, Tavares, like many others before him, spurned the Islanders for greener pastures. At that point, Islanders fans could be forgiven for believing the situation on Long Island was doomed to continue repeating itself into the future.
However, under new owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, and the watchful eye of Hall of Fame executive Lou Lamoriello, the Islanders have returned to being a force in the NHL. From the 2018-2019 season through today, only six teams in the NHL have played more playoff games than the Islanders, who rode a strong defensive structure and elite goaltending to back-to-back Eastern Conference Final appearances in 2020 and 2021. And now with UBS Arena open for business, the future on Long Island is brighter than it has been in four decades.
As Sorokin inched closer to unrestricted free agency, fans could be forgiven for fearing the worst. Time and again, players have said the right thing in the moment, only to leave when afforded the opportunity. Had Sorokin not signed this summer, the 2023-2024 season would have been wrought with anxiety for Islanders fans, wondering all year whether Sorokin planned to bolt on July 1, 2024.
But unlike LaFontaine, Muller, Palffy, Smyth, and Tavares, Sorokin chose the Islanders. By signing his contract extension on the day he was eligible, Sorokin proved where his heart truly lies. Now, Sorokin and the Islanders can focus solely on the greatest goal of all: completing the Drive for Five and bringing Lord Stanley’s Cup back to Long Island.