The New York Islanders didn’t make the big splash in free agency they had hoped for but they did provide a bit of a new look to their goaltending situation with the signing of Semyon Varlamov.
Varlamov, at his best, is one of the NHL’s top goaltenders. Between his 10 full NHL seasons (where he’s played at least 25 games), Varlamov has finished the year with a .920 save percentage or above four times. In 177 games between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons, Varlamov averaged a .921 save percentage with a 96-59-17 record and in 2013-14 he finished second in Vezina Trophy voting and fourth in Hart Trophy voting.
The problem is he’s not always at his best. He wasn’t great in Colorado last year and ended up losing the starting job to Philipp Grubauer, pushing him to find a new home. Now 31 years old, the hope has to be that Varlamov can return to form from a few years ago. Despite his four great seasons, Varlamov has finished with a save percentage below .910 in four of his 10 seasons in the league as well. In 124 games over his last three seasons, Varlamov has averaged just a .911 save percentage and totalled a 50-52-15 record (though keep in mind, Colorado’s disastrous 2016-17 season is included here). His goals saved above average is also in the negatives in three of the last four seasons.
Between his four great seasons and four subpar seasons, this means Varlamov has only finished with a save percentage between .910 and .920 twice in 10 years. Considering the bulk of NHL starters would average somewhere between the .910 and .920 range, it means Varlamov is usually either excellent or below average on a season to season basis, with little room for “decent.”
If Varlamov does start slow, there’s some relief in knowing New York has a solid backup to turn to with Thomas Greiss for another season. Greiss has a 62-40-9 record with a .912 save percentage since coming to New York in 2015 and if needed, can be good for 40 games again this season. That being said, Greiss is probably only around for one more year and we all know why.
Bringing in Varlamov was likely a move made to entice star prospect Ilya Sorokin to join the Islanders next season. You have to question whether there was any dialogue involving Sorokin which made this a necessary move to bring him over or if it was rather just a sweetener for him to come to Long Island. Either way, it was sad to see Robin Lehner go and even with the Sorokin factor, it was a little odd to see Varlamov get a $5M x 4 deal while Lehner wasn’t offered more than two years at the same number.
As for this season, we can probably expect for Varlamov to get somewhere between 50-60 starts, based on past seasons. The hope is that Varlamov takes the starting job and runs with it. If he’s at the top of his game, the Islanders are a playoff team once again. If he struggles, a lot of responsibility shifts to Thomas Greiss who, despite coming off a great season, has only played more than 43 games in a single season once. Regardless, Varlamov is a bit of a wild card and one way or another his performance is sure to have a huge impact on the Islanders’ success.