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Playoffs Highlight Benefits of Great Goaltending Depth

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New York Islanders netminders, Semyon Varlamov & Ilya Sorokin

On Memorial Day, the New York Islanders cross-town rival New York Rangers defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The Carolina Hurricanes had been without starting netminder Frederik Andersen the entirety of the postseason, relying heavily on Antti Raanta, who towards the end of the series essentially fell apart.

The Hurricanes issue in goal, along with countless other teams this postseason, reiterates the importance of what the New York Islanders have.

The two Russian netminders, Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov, served as one of the best tandems in the league back in 2020-21, and with Semyon Varlamov’s injuries and COVID woes this past season, Sorokin learned and grew and showed his worth as an elite netminder in the NHL.

“I think he had a great year,” Varlamov said on Sorokin. “You check his stats, his save percentage, like goals against, and then I mean, I think he’s top-five, top-10 goalies in the league.”

“And then he played very well from the beginning of the season, and then he finished the season very strong too. So that’s positive for him. I’m very happy for him. He definitely improving his game, each year he’s playing in this league.”

For Semyon Varlamov, this past season was a nightmare but one that ended on a good note against the Washington Capitals. And it also showed that a healthy Varlamov is still a weapon.

“Yeah, it was huge for me, you know, I mean, like I said, I did not have a good year like, what, like nine wins before, into playing the last game against Washington,” Varlamov said. “Of course it was pretty disappointing. And then I was very happy to have a strong game.”

“So it was important for me to finish the season on the right note, and I was able to do that. That’s a positive.”

Having two strong backstops does not mean that newly appointed head coach Lane Lambert needs to run his netminders like a tandem.

Varlamov, a grizzled veteran, understands what Sorokin’s growth means for his ice time.

“I mean, it’s not up to me how many games I’m gonna play next year,” Varlamov said. You know, it’s up to the management and coaching staff of course, they deciding on how the next season is gonna look like. We’re gonna be splitting the games. Oh, Ilya’s gonna be playing more, I’m gonna be playing more. I mean, we’ll see. We’ll be ready for any scenario.”

“You know, if coach wanted me to play six games, I’ll play six games.”

In my story on Johnny Gaudreau from last week, I broke down how the New York Islanders could afford the elite forward. And one way would be moving netminder Semyon Varlamov and the remaining $5 million he has left on his contract.

I’m not saying that’s the right move but also not saying it’s the wrong move.

It depends on where the priorities of upper management lie.

On the surface, two netminders combining for $9 million annually may seem like a lot, but it’s all about the value.

Two starters for that number is not ludicrous. And it’s only for one more year.

And you also have to account for injuries.

Look at the number of injuries we have seen with starting netminders and how it’s impacted these playoffs.

In the first round, we saw the Nashville Predators have no choice but to start backup David Rittich and then Connor Ingram due to an injury to All-Star and Vezina finalist Jusse Saros.

Not that Saros would have single-handedly been able to defeat the elite Colorado Avalanche, but there is no question he would have given his team a significantly better chance.

On the Avalanche side of things, Darcy Kuemper took a stick through his cat eye mask in Game 3, forcing him to miss the rest of that game and the series.

Backup Pavel Francouz, who had a strong season, relieved Kuemper and got the series sweep.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were without All-Star Tristan Jarry to start the playoffs against the Rangers and quickly lost backup Casey Smith, who left Game 1 in double overtime with a core muscle injury.

Third-string netminder Louis Domingue was thrown into the fire, and to his credit, staved off the fire for as long as he could but then showcased why he was in the AHL this season.

Moving on from Pittsburgh, we saw some teams go to backups after starters struggles, like Jordan Binnington taking over for Ville Husso in St. Louis, a move that got them over the Minnesota Wild hump.

Unfortunately for Binnington and St. Louis, a knee injury forced a reversal of that decision, and the Avalanche beat the Blues in six games on a late goal––a stoppable goal.

We also saw some teams have to ride out starters because there was not a better backup option. I

In the Calgary Flames seven-game, second-round series, Jakob Markstrom, also a Vezina finalist, struggled mightily against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

However, the little faith in Dan Vladar (who played one game) forced Daryll Sutter’s hand. If there was a better capable option at the backup position, would a move have been made?

This brings the conversation to one of the greatest goaltender stories of this playoffs, which was the domination of 22-year-old Jake Oettinger.

Starting the season as the fourth-string netminder, injury after another in goal allowed him a chance and he ran with it. Despite losing in seven games to the Calgary Flames, Oettinger was mesmerizing to watch and almost led Dallas to a first-round upset.

If Oettinger did not start the playoffs strong, who was head coach Rick Bowness going to turn to, Brayden Holtby?

Say what you want about the Tampa Bay Lightning who are inching closer and closer to winning a third-string Stanley Cup.

If anything were to happen to Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning are likely out of the playoffs in the first round.

No offense to Lightning backup Brian Elliott, but the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had their own goaltending issues, would have broken their first-round curse had Vasilevskiy not been in between the pipes.

Having two strong netminders is a luxury at the NHL level. If the New York Islanders decide to keep Semyon Varlamov, which I believe they will, that just increases their ability to have sustained success in 2022-23.