This past offseason, there was plenty of hype surrounding the New York Islanders‘ goalie situation. Ilya Sorokin, who the Isles had drafted in 2014, had developed into one of the best goalies in the world not playing in North America. After eight seasons in the KHL, Sorokin finally elected to come to North America and join the Islanders. But after having three straight seasons in Russia with a .930 save percentage or better, Sorokin has struggled mightily in his first few games with the Islanders. It’s given another Russian, Semyon Varlamov, the opportunity to remind fans of his elite talent level.
Semyon Varlamov Elite in Goal for the Islanders Early On
The Raw Stats
The first argument with how helpful Varlamov’s been is rather basic. The Islanders have played five games this season. They’ve won the three in which Varlamov has played, and they’ve lost the two in which Sorokin has played. But if that was the whole story, this wouldn’t be much of a piece.
Varlamov is dominating the league across traditional goalie stats as well. His .988 save percentage ranks first in the league of any goalie to hit the ice this season. The same can be said for his goals-against average, 0.33. And while GAA is largely viewed as not a great individual stat, and rightly so, the difference between his mark and Sorokin’s 3.57 mark is staggering so far. He’s the only goalie so far in the league with two shutouts.
The long and short of it is that Varlamov has played in three games and only allowed one goal. Without his play, the Islanders are likely a .500 or worse team at this point in the season. And yes, getting off to a hot start in a shortened season can be incredibly beneficial. But if Sorokin is really not able to adjust to North American ice this season, the sustainability of Varlamov’s play will be crucial to New York’s success.
The Team in Front of Him
It’s no secret that under coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders are almost annoyingly good defensively. And while they haven’t been the league’s best in that realm to start this season, they’ve still been pretty good. At 5-on-5 play, the Islanders have a team expected goals against of 1.83 per game. That’s tied with the Dallas Stars for the seventh-best number in the league (MoneyPuck). That still isn’t enough to discredit Varlamov’s heroic efforts this season, however. More advanced metrics suggest his sky-high numbers aren’t purely answered for by good defence, as Varlamov has posted the highest save percentage above expected of any ‘tender in the league so far with a 2.325 percent (MoneyPuck). Those are spectacular numbers. But again – is it sustainable?
In order to get a good idea if Varlamov can keep this up, we can look at last year’s performance with the Islanders as well. All their six bodies on defence played for them last season, most full-time save for Andy Greene. In 2019-20, the team actually finished seventh in the league in expected goals against as well (MoneyPuck). So why wasn’t Varlamov this incredible last season?
For one, the sample size argument is huge. Despite having the same ranking within the league (seventh), their actual expected goals against per game at 5-on-5 play that year was 2.26. The Islanders have been technically better defensively this year to start, influencing Varlamov’s numbers. But we can expect some regression to the mean over the coming months. That will likely result in some regression in Varlamov’s play as well. But it’s not enough on its own to take him out of the “elite” category that his isolated advanced metrics so far this year suggest.
But looking at his past isolated advanced metrics suggest regression for Varlamov is coming even if the team stays hot defensively. In fact, Varlamov really wasn’t the key to the Islanders’ defensive success at all last season. His save percentage above expected in 2019-20 was only 0.084 percent (MoneyPuck), meaning he basically performed as you’d expect an NHL goalie to perform considering the defence in front of him.
Some more numbers from his time with the Colorado Avalanche suggest a similar pattern. His save percentage above expected in four straight years with Colorado from 2015-16 to 2018-19 reads out as 0.094, -0.802, 0.193, and -0.172. From 2015 to 2020, Evolving-Hockey’s goals against replacement model shows Varlamov as saving 45.7 goals above a replacement-level ‘tender over that time frame. That number is less than half of ones posted by an elite crop of goalies such as John Gibson, Sergei Bobrovsky, and the recently-retired Corey Crawford.
What This Means for the Islanders
Semyon Varlamov has a history of being a capable NHL goaltender. There’s no doubt about that. But the Islanders have shown an overreliance on his play to start the year. When regression comes as the season progresses, the Islanders will need to improve offensively in order to maintain their current pace. Online sportsbooks currently have the Islanders at +750 odds to win the East Division, the fifth-best odds of any team. That has them missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs entirely after reaching the Eastern Conference Final just last year. If the Islanders can’t improve their team in front of Varlamov, that fate could surely become a reality.
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