The Islanders Best Trade Chip Firmly Staying?

What’s getting in the way of the New York Islanders and having the ability to reel in a big fish when free agency opens on July 13 or the ability to acquire a top-flight forward is their salary cap situation. The Islanders currently have $12 million and change before giving around $4.5 million annually to RFA defenseman Noah Dobson and the league minimum ($800,000) to fellow RFA, forward Kieffer Bellows.

Crunching the numbers, the Islanders would have about $7 million to play with, but that alone is not enough.

New York Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello has one player in netminder Semyon Varlamov that if moved, could clear $5 million off the payroll, creating $12 million-plus in space after Dobson and Bellows are locked up.

But Lamoriello has little to no desire to move Varlamov, while the 34-year-old veteran has little to no desire to move, even after the tough season for himself and the team.

Varlamov played just 31 games in 2021-22 due to injury, COVID-19, as well as due to the play of Sorokin. The veteran netminder posted a 2.88 GAA and a .912 SV% in those games as he did not find his game until very late in the season. While he struggled, Sorokin excelled, posting a .925 SV% and a 2.40 GAA with seven shutouts in 52 games.

There were teams phoning Lamoriello prior to the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline about Varlamov’s availability. NYI Hockey Now learned that the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Vegas Golden Knights were highly interested. The asking price was at least a first-round pick but both teams, who seem to need netminders, found answers internally prior to Trade Deadline Day and felt comfortable enough with their options to not pay the hefty price.

And Lamoriello was not going to settle for anything less than the asking price.

“Well first of all, there’s no question that Varly certainly got a lot of attention., but he’s very important to our team. He’s very important to our goaltending. In my opinion, he’s very important to the growth and maturity to Ilya Sorokin and everybody is always looking for goaltenders,” Lamoriello said. “And you don’t give up a goaltender to make another position better and make a bigger hole. You can make all the splashes in the world, but you have to look at the big picture and not today but tomorrow which comes very quickly.”

And a few months later, the last media availability before their offseason began, Semyon Varlamov spoke for the first time.

“I’m not gonna lie. I was very happy to stay with this organization. I didn’t want to be moved anywhere,” Varlamov said. “You know, I got one more year with the Islanders, and I want to be here next year, and I wanted to finish this season, no matter what.”

“I didn’t want to be in the middle of the season and go play somewhere else. I believe in this team. I believe in the organization. I think this team is going in the right direction.”

One of the New York Islanders faithful’s biggest concerns is that Semyon Varlamov will take games away from Ilya Sorokin if he remains on the island. Sorokin, over his two seasons in the NHL, has already showcased his elite skill set and is undoubtedly the starter for New York, now and for years to come.

Varlamov was asked about his minutes next season and if he minded taking a back seat.

“If the coach wanted me to play six games, I’ll play six games,” Varlamov said.

Varlamov has been a fantastic Islander over his three years with the club, and one could argue he has outperformed his contract.

In the summer of 2019, the New York Islanders committed four years to Semyon Varlamov, a 31-year-old netminder who had slowly but surely lost the starting gig with the Colorado Avalanche. His last season in the mile-high city saw him post a 2.87 GAA with a .909 SV% in 49 games.

The Islanders had been interested in Varlamov for years and knew that his acquisition could help get top netminding prospect Ilya Sorokin to come over from the KHL.

In his first year with the Islanders, Varlamov improved on his 2018-19 stats, as he posted a 2.62 GAA with a respectable .914 SV% in 45 games played in the shortened 2019-20 campaign. He played an integral role in getting the Islanders back into the postseason after two years of not qualifying for the playoffs.

Yes, the Islanders got in on a pandemic technicality, but they got in nonetheless.

In the postseason, in which the Islanders were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference finals (4-2), Varlamov posted a .921 SV% with a 2.01 GAA in 20 games.

The following season, 2020-21, a 56-game campaign, Varlamov dominated. In 36 games played, the veteran posted a .929 SV% with a 2.04 GAA and seven shutouts, which were all career highs. His seven shutouts were tied for the league lead.

In the 2021 postseasonwhich ended in the conference finals yet again to the Lightning (4-3), Varlamov posted a .922 SV% with a 2.56 GAA in 14 games.

While his on-ice play was brilliant, his mentorship of then-rookie Ilya Sorokin, a major reason Varlamov was brought in, was just as important.

Now that Sorokin is here and has acclimated himself to the NHL game and lifestyle, the decision to keep Varlamov would be more about having two strong netminders over the leadership aspect. Varlamov’s words, not mine.

“I think we are past that stage,” Varlamov said about mentoring Sorokin. “I don’t think he needs a mentor. I think he’s ready to go.”

The issue with moving Varlamov is that he has a modified no-trade clause. In Varlamov’s case, he has a list of 16 teams he can deny a move to––half the NHL.

There is one team that we know that is on his no-trade list, which is the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers, this past postseason, were swept in the conference finals by the Colorado Avalanche. Their goaltending has been suspect at best, with 40-year-old Mike Smith barely average. Very recently, Oilers backup netminder Mikko Koskinen left the NHL to continue his career in Switzerland.

That leaves 24-year-old Stuart Skinner as the no. 1 netminder for the 2022-23 season, for now.

General manager Ken Holland said during his end-of-the-season press conference that acquiring a goaltender was a priority. Varlamov would be a perfect fit, as he would likely be the starter, while also mentoring Skinner. The Oilers have $7.13 million in cap space.

Another team Varlamov would certainly help is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who right now are still deciding whether are not to keep 30-year-old Jack Campbell, who is an RFA. Staying on the United States East Coast, the New Jersey Devils need someone to come in and battle with 25-year-old Mackenzie Blackwood to push him to be the best version of himself.

The Maple Leafs have $7.84 million in cap space, while the New Jersey Devils have north of $25 million.

The Philadelphia Flyers are making moves to change the culture and direction of the franchise, as John Tortorella was named head coach on June 17. 23-year-old Carter Hart is a superstar in the making, yet Martin Jones (UFA) as his backup is not the ideal player to be learning from. However, Varlamov would surely be a welcomed acquisition, a goaltender who is light years better than the washed Jones.

The Flyers have $5.1 million in cap space.

For any team interested in Varlamov, given the importance of the goaltender position, Varlamov’s skill set, and that he would be healthy entering the 2022-23 season, and depending on what the team is offering, at the minimum, a first-round selection needs to come the Islanders way.

In the NHL today, having two goaltenders is essential. And Lou Lamoriello knows that. But as Varlamov said, Sorokin doesn’t need the mentoring. If that’s the case, the Islanders can go out and get an available backup for much cheaper and give the reigns to Sorokin like the Tampa Bay Lightning does for Andrei Vasilevskiy or the New York Rangers do for Igor Shesterkin.

And in the process would allow them the opportunity to bolster their offense, along with their defense depending on how the money is allocated.

But as of now, Semyon Varlamov is on the island. Unless something changes, an offer comes in that Lamoriello cannot refuse, it’s likely that Varlamov remains with the Islanders until the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, if not the whole season, the last season of his contract.

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