When news broke on Thursday that Vegas Golden Knights goalkeeper Robin Lehner set to miss the 2022-23 season after hip surgery, speculation began.
New York Islanders fans immediately wondered if the sudden need for a team of goaltenders with Stanley Cup aspirations would make GM Lou Lamoriello reconsider its position to retain the luxury of having Semyon Varlamov as its expensive backup for Ilya Sorokin.
There were rumors that Vegas aggressively pursued Varlamov at last March’s trade deadline, but Lamoriello decided to keep his goalie tandem intact for the rest of the season. After missing training camp, the 14-year-old veteran played just 31 games, his lowest tally since 2016-17 with the Colorado avalanche. The 10-17-2 record was not reflective of the way Varlamov played, especially in the second half of the season. He finished with a .911 save percentage and a 2.91 GAA.
For the past few weeks, speculation has been that the islanders had to lose their salaries to create the cap space needed to sign the UFA Nazem Kadri as well as RFAs Noah Dobson, Alexander Romanovand Kieffer Bellows. The most frequently mentioned player was Josh Baileyand his AAV cap of $5 million reached – the identical number worn by Varlamov for next season.
Swapping Varlamov would mean the attacking group could stay put and have interchangeable depth. There is a growing feeling that if there was a trade for Bailey it would have happened by now, and finding another way to move the salary would avoid a scenario where the Islanders would need to add draft picks like “sweeteners” to take the last two years of his contract.
It would also mean that a player such as Anthony Beauvillercoming off a down year, would be a relatively safe bet to come back despite being one of the most attractive island assets at the NHL level.
While trading Varlamov would solve the cap tightening problem, it would create another one. Who would be Ilya Sorokin’s replacement? The The UFA goalkeeper market is slim – really thin. While the UFA Cory Schneider winning his first win since 2020 was a great story last season there was a distinct reluctance to play him at the NHL level. Varlamov’s early injury led Sorokin to start the first nine games under Schneider’s watch. He’s not an option at the NHL level.
At AHL Bridgeport, both goalies expected to be former 3rd round picks 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 said it was comfortable with Skarek third on the organizational depth chart, but he didn’t show enough consistency to start 20-25 NHL games.
The answer might be on the Vegas list. Their depth chart includes Logan Thompson, Laurent Brossoitand Michael Hutchinson. Thompson is the most intriguing of the three, posting a 10-5-3 record and .914 save percentage after posting impressive numbers in the AHL. Vegas might be tempted to see if the 25-year-old could make the most of an opportunity. Brossoit, returning from his own hip surgery, averaged 2.90 in 24 games played, while Hutching has 137 NHL games under his belt, playing in two for the Toronto Maple Leafs Last year.
Varlamov’s drop to Brossoit or Hutchinson would be brutal, but while Thompson’s sample size is limited, the upside makes him the target if you’re looking for a goalkeeper back.
That’s a tough question to answer without knowing for sure what the Islanders did. Do they even need to lose their salary at this point? Is Kadri’s contract in a drawer or does he still speak to other teams? Have they exhausted trade options for Bailey? Is there an attractive market for Beauvillier?
Without knowing it, it’s hard for anyone on the outside to offer an educated guess. Before free agency, and before the frantic carousel of goaltenders, now would have been an opportune time to trade Varlamov if the goal was to be more aggressive in the free agent market. It’s clear that Lamoriello’s preference is to have one of, if not the best goaltending tandem in the league next season.
There’s also a premature speculation that 27-year-old Sorokin can play 60+ games, which hasn’t been done often in Islanders history. A Varlamov trade and Sorokin injury could easily derail the Islanders’ season and playoff chances in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
Then there is always the possibility of moving Varlamov at the deadline. Depending on the Islanders’ position in the playoff bracket, Lamoriello might be inclined to move him to a draft pick contender. But it’s hard to imagine the Islanders being so clearly sellers at this point. If they are, Varlamov won’t be the only player likely to move.
So what should they do? Can I answer once I know what they did?
I think the Islanders are sticking with Sorokin-Varlamov in goal. The Islanders can’t compete with many teams in terms of skill or offensive firepower, but they can boast of being above average and sometimes elite as goaltenders for 82 matches. Keeping the puck out of their net is still the most likely way At Lane Lambert’s the team returns to the playoffs next season. Unless Vegas is willing to make a desperate offer, one that includes Thompson’s promise to be Sorokin’s insurance, Lamoriello should rightly leave it at that.