When news broke on Thursday that Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner is expected to miss the 2022-23 season after hip surgery, speculation started.
New York Islanders fans immediately wondered whether the sudden goaltending need for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations would make G.M. Lou Lamoriello reconsider his position to maintain the luxury of having Semyon Varlamov as his expensive backup to Ilya Sorokin.
There were rumors that Vegas aggressively pursued Varlamov at last March's trade deadline, but Lamoriello decided to keep his goaltending tandem intact for the remainder of the season. After missing training camp, the 14-year veteran played in just 31 games, his lowest total since 2016-17 with the Colorado Avalanche. The record of 10-17-2 wasn't reflective of how Varlamov played, especially in the second half of the season. He finished with a .911 save % and 2.91 GAA.
Freeing up cap space
In recent weeks, the speculation has been that the Islanders need to shed salary to create necessary cap space to sign UFA Nazem Kadri along with RFAs Noah Dobson, Alexander Romanov, and Kieffer Bellows. The player most frequently mentioned player has been Josh Bailey, and his $5M AAV cap hit - the identical number carried by Varlamov for next season.
Trading Varlamov would mean the forward group could stay in place and have interchangeable depth. There's a growing sentiment that if there was a trade for Bailey to be made, it would have happened already, and finding an alternative way to move salary would avoid a scenario where the Islanders would need to add draft picks as 'sweeteners' to take the final two years of his contract.
It would also mean that a player such as Anthony Beauvillier, coming off a down year, would be a relatively safe bet to return despite being one of the more attractive Islander assets at the NHL level.
Who would be the back up?
While trading Varlamov would solve the cap crunch problem, it would create another. Who would be the backup to Ilya Sorokin? The UFA goaltending market is thin - really thin. While UFA Cory Schneider earning his first win since 2020 was a nice story last season, there was a clear reluctance to play him at the NHL level. Varlamov's early injury led to Sorokin starting the first nine games as Schneider watched. He's not an option at the NHL level.
At AHL Bridgeport, the two goaltenders are expected to be former 3rd round pick Jakub Skarek who struggled last season (.896 save percentage, 3.30 goals-against average in 37 games), and 27-year-old journeyman Ken Appleby. The organization has stated they are comfortable with Skarek third on the organizational depth chart, but he hasn't shown enough consistency to start 20-25 NHL games.
The answer might be on the Vegas roster. Their depth chart includes Logan Thompson, Laurent Brossoit, and Michael Hutchinson. Thompson is the most intriguing of the three, posting a 10-5-3 record and .914 save percentage after putting up impressive AHL numbers. Vegas might be tempted to see if the 25-year-old could make the most of an opportunity. Brossoit, coming back from his own hip surgery, had a 2.90 GAA in 24 games played, while Hutching has 137 NHL games to his credit, playing in two for the Toronto Maple Leafs last year.
The drop-off from Varlamov to Brossoit or Hutchinson would be stark, but while Thompson's sample size is limited, the upside makes him the target if you are looking for goaltender in return.
What should the Islanders do?
It's hard question to answer without knowing with certainty what the Islanders have done. Do they even need to shed salary at this point? Is Kadri's deal in a drawer or is he still talking to other teams? Have they exhausted trade options for Bailey? Is there an attractive market for Beauvillier?
Without knowing, it's hard for anyone on the outside to offer an educated guess. Before free agency, and ahead of the frantic goalie carousel, would have been the opportune time to trade Varlamov if the objective was to be more aggressive in the free agent market. It's clear that Lamoriello preference is to have one of, if not the best goalie tandem in the league next season.
There's also a premature assumption that the 27-year-old Sorokin can play 60-plus games, which hasn't been done often in Islanders' history. A trade of Varlamov and an injury to Sorokin could easily derail the Islanders' season and playoff chances in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
Then there's always the option of moving Varlamov at the deadline. Depending on where the Islanders are in the playoff picture, Lamoriello could be inclined to move him to a contender for draft picks. But it's hard to imagine the Islanders being that clearly sellers at that point. If they are, Varlamov won't be the only player likely on the move.
So what should they do? Can I answer after I know what they've done?
I think the Islanders stick with Sorokin-Varlamov in net. The Islanders can't match many teams in skill or offensive firepower, but they can tout above average and sometimes elite goaltending for 82 games. Keeping the puck out of their net is still the most likely way Lane Lambert's team returns to the playoffs next season. Unless Vegas is willing to make a desperate offer, one that includes promising Thompson to be insurance for Sorokin, Lamoriello should rightfully stand pat.