At first glance, the biggest difference between this season's NY Islanders and the 2021-22 Isles is the uptick in goal production. The Islanders (thus far) have improved from last season's 2.79 goals per game to a respectable 3.15 goals per game this season. In order to do that, the Islanders changed the way they approach the game under new tutelage in Lane Lambert, icing a more aggressive system that tends to sacrifice some defense in their own end. Thankfully, the Isles have Ilya Sorokin who has put on a Vezina-caliber performance in 18 games so far this season, but Semyon Varlamov has been one of the biggest differences for the Islanders when you contrast his performance from last year.
Health was Varlamov's biggest obstacle in 2021-22 as he didn't start his first game until Nov. 7th and once he finally did, it took him over a month, or seven starts, to get his first win. Eventually, Varlamov turned things around and ended the season with a .911 SV% and a 2.91 GAA, however, his 10-17-2 record didn't much help the Islanders get back into the playoffs, missing the postseason for the first time in three seasons.
In 2022-23, Varlamov flipped the script. So far the Samara, Russia native has had a healthy training camp, preseason, and start to the regular season. Sorokin's spectacular first quarter has earned him roughly two out of every three starts assuming the starting goaltending duties, yet in his decreased role, Varlamov has provided a steady dependable presence that has many convinced the Islanders own the best goaltending in the NHL.
Varlamov has quietly put together a 6-3-0 record in nine starts that includes a shutout against the Chicago Blackhawks this past Sunday. Varlamov's raw statistics look better, too, with a .922 SV% and a 2.52 GAA. Taking a closer look, however, the underlying metrics suggest Varlamov has been stronger than your average backup goaltender.
According to MoneyPuck.com, Varlamov sits just outside the top-10 in goals saved above expected this season, ranked 11th overall amongst goaltenders who have played in nine or more games with an even 5.0 GSAx, tied with Tampa Bay Lightning's goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Further, Varlamov's xGAA is a 3.09, saving .57 moe pucks than expected this season.
The Islanders are receiving exceptional goaltending regardless of who is in net for them this season. Sorokin is playing otherworldly in net and has made it clear he's the No.1 goaltender now and in the future. But, make no mistake about it, when Varlamov is called upon, the 34-year-old veteran can still provide a No.1 goaltender's presence in the crease. The Islanders certainly aren't a perfect team this season and one could even argue they have some issues they need to figure out to remain in the playoff picture, but Sorokin's Vezina-caliber season and Varlamov's exceptional backup duties could carry them back into the playoffs, sitting in third place in the Metropolitan Division and eighth place in the NHL.
"Those guys [Varlamov and Sorokin] have been so good for us this year," Zach Parise explained after the Islanders' 3-0 victory over the Blackhawks on Sunday. "Timely saves too. When we haven't had a great start, or been a little sluggish, they've made such timely big saves to keep it 0-0 or keep it 1-0. In the meantime, we're able to find our legs a little bit and take over the game. You can't say enough about those guys, they've been so good."