It’s a fact that the New York Islanders have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league. Veteran netminder Semyon Varlamov was brought in, which likely enticed Ilya Sorokin to come over from Russia. Since 2019, they have formed an incredible bond that has benefited them and the Islanders in more ways than one.
When Ilya Sorokin came over, he had little knowledge of the English language, the American way of life, and the North American game. Semyon Varlamov was integral in helping him get acclimated to all the changes.
Flash-forward three years later, and Varlamov is no longer the mentor for Sorokin but a dynamic counterpart.
This goaltending culture established at the NHL level for the New York Islanders runs deep within the organization.
“I think we’re lucky at all three levels,” Bridgeport Islanders general manager Chris Lamoriello said regarding the goaltending situation.
Schneider & Skarek in Bridgeport
Veteran netminder Cory Schneider, 36, is trying to work his way back to the NHL after finally getting healthy. While he does that, he has been in Bridgeport, serving as a mentor for 23-year-old Jakub Skarek, who has taken strides under his tutelage.
During this past training camp, our Stefen Rosner caught up with Schneider, who had this to say about Skarek:
“There’s a lot of things to like about him. He’s a big kid, he works really hard, and his work ethic is incredible. So I think, you know, for him, he’s making strides. There were some stretches last year when he was playing really, really well for us. So, you know, he wasn’t afraid to ask questions and to pick and prod me a little bit on things that he can maybe improve upon, and not that I have all the answers, but I try to give him my insight and use the experience I have to help him through things.”
It is a two-way street, as Skarek loves having Schneider in his corner.
“I can’t say a bad thing about him. He’s a great mentor to me. I can ask him whatever I want, and he’s trying to help me on and off the ice. So I’m happy that he’s here, and I’m trying to learn from him as much as I can,” Skarek said.
The biggest thing that the 23-year-old has learned from Schneider is the role of patience.
“I’m trying to look at how patient he is because he has so much experience. There are so many things that I’ve learned from him, it’s tough to pick just one, but this one is probably the biggest one for me,” Skarek said.
Bridgeport head coach Brent Thompson couldn’t think of a better mentor for Skarek.
“It’s unbelievable, honestly. I think, for me, he’s a calming presence. He’s a leader. He looks controlled and poised in the game, and it looks kind of easy for him,” Thompson told NYI Hockey Now. “But our goaltending in general, Skarek and him together, have been outstanding all year, and hopefully, we can keep building on that.”
Appleby & Tikkanen in Worcester
Appleby is another vet who has a great resume. The North Bay, Ontario native has appeared in three NHL games and 92 AHL games over his career and 135 ECHL games.
He spent time in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) from 2012-15 with the Oshawa Generals. In 2014, he won the Memorial Cup championship and OHL championship while earning Memorial Cup All-Star and Most Outstanding Goaltender honors with an OHL best 2.08 GAA and six shutouts to lead the league.
On the season, Appleby is 9-3-1, with a 3.25 GAA and an .896 SV%. Despite not posting the best numbers, he has played an integral role in Tikkanen’s development and comfortability living in North America.
Tikkanen, who stands at 6-foot-eight and is in his first season in North America with a 2.58 GAA and a .921 SV% in 15 games played this season with the Worcester Railers. Appleby is in his eighth pro season and has appeared in 14 games with Worcester, posting a 3.25 GAA and a .896 SV%.
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“I think I have been able to make the changes to my game pretty well since arriving in North America,” Tikkanen told NYI Hockey Now.
Tikkanen is proving this right before our eyes, sitting ninth in the ECHL in wins with 10 in 18 games this season.
Like on Long Island and in Bridgeport, Worcester’s goalie and team culture are just as strong, according to Railers head coach Jordan Lavallee-Smotherman.
“We have a fun culture. We expect a lot out of the guys, and when they give us the kind we expect from them, we just like to have a good time. And that’s our big philosophy, Smotherman told NYI Hockey Now. “We want guys to be able to come here from wherever they come from and feel like they’re part of a family and feel like they can just go out there and play the game.”
“Those two guys [Appleby and Tikkanen] have been phenomenal. Coming into the season. I obviously had Kenny [Appleby] as a teammate last year, and I knew how much we can lean on him. I didn’t know a lot about Henrik, but he’s been phenomenal for us as well. It’s really nice to know that whoever we throw in net on any given night is going to give us a really good game.”
Islanders fans shouldn’t just turn the page on the ECHL. Lots of great goalies have been produced by the ECHL, including former New York Islander goaltender Thomas Greiss.
Three different levels, but the one common theme of a veteran leading the way for a youngster.
Ilya Sorokin has seen exponential progress, as he has become one of the most talented goaltenders in the NHL. Jakub Skarek is improving every day under the guidance of Cory Schneider, and Henrik Tikkanen is a part of a historic record-breaking season with Worcester in the ECHL, learning from Ken Appleby.
Safe to say that the New York Islanders goaltending strategy is paying off.
NYI Hockey Nowe Editor-in-Chief Stefen Rosner contributed to this piece.