The New York Islanders have been longing for a franchise-caliber netminder to make his way to Long Island since the Rick DiPietro days. This past regular season, it became abundantly clear that 25-year old rookie netminder Ilya Sorokin has what it takes to fill that role.
After 22 regular-season appearances and another seven starts in the playoffs, it’s clear to see how far Sorokin had come in his first NHL season.
The Russian netminder began his NHL career in the worst of ways, which goes to show just how far he came throughout the 2021 season.
After Semyon Varlamov left warmups the second game of the regular season, Sorokin was thrown into the fire with little time to prepare against the Islanders’ biggest rival, the New York Rangers. The 5-0 rout was one to forget and five months later, Sorokin found himself helping the Islanders in their run to the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
“It was my first season in the National Hockey League and it was wonderful,” Ilya Sorokin said during his final media availability of the year. “I’m really happy that I came here and playing under the Islanders flag. It was a good year for me.”
It had been an up and down regular season for the Islanders, but through the mediocrity, Sorokin seemed to shine more often than not. He posted a 13-6-3 record in 22 games, with a 2.17 GAA and a .918 SV%. He allowed only four or more goals in four games, two of those coming in his first two starts. He was second amongst rookies who had started 20 or more games (a list of seven) in both SV% and GAA.
He was tied for the most shutouts with three.
— NHL (@NHL) March 1, 2021
He eventually got to a point during the regular season where he seemed to be playing like a seasoned vet rather than the rookie that he was. His teammates raved about his skillset, especially the quickness he displayed not just in practice but in critical moments of games as well.
“Ilya is such a talented kid. I saw him playing in Russia before he came here and I think played very well for us,” said Semyon Varlamov, who shared the net with Sorokin and served as his mentor. “He played outstanding in the First Round against Pittsburgh. That was one of the reasons we beat them because he played out of his mind a couple of games.
“We beat Pittsburgh in OT and he made 40-something saves those games. I mean, he was just outstanding. It was a lot of fun to work with him this year.”
He had gone from a major question mark back in January to a player trusted by Barry Trotz in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And Varlamov was not wrong when he pointed to the effort of Sorokin in the First Round against Pittsburgh.
Ilya Sorokin won all four of his starts in the opening round against the Penguins (Game 1, Game 4, 5, 6) and posted a .943 save percentage. He was the biggest reason the Islanders advanced.
His stats took a dip because of two rough appearances against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the semifinals, but he still finished with a 2.79 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.
The experience during the postseason was yet another learning experience for the 25-year-old. “You should work every day and work hard if you want to play in the NHL,” Sorokin said.
In hindsight, the rough start to his career taught him valuable lessons early, valuable lessons needed to understand how to win at the NHL level.
For Sorokin, he had to overcome a different style of hockey, a different rink size, but on top of that, a language barrier and COVID-19 regulations. The Russian star found a way to overcome those challenges and focus on the task at hand: winning hockey games.
The Islanders will have to re-sign Sorokin during the offseason. He is one of four restricted free agents the Islanders have to deal with. Sorokin will see a bump in his pay when all is said and done, and he will have earned it.
From appearance one to appearance 29, the growth in Sorokin’s mental and physical game has been evident and should give the franchise plenty of optimism going forward. The rookie will see an increased role as time goes on and the role of 1A and 1B shifts from Varlamov to Sorokin.
It may not happen overnight, but it may come faster than originally anticipated.