It’s been 9,831 days since the New York Islanders last won a second-round playoff series. For a franchise credited with one of the greatest dynasties in hockey, that’s unacceptable.
But for the past 2,116, there’s been some hope. That’s when the Islanders made Ilya Sorokin a third-round pick at the 2014 draft, giving the team it’s long-term future between the pipes. Maybe a little longer than the team hoped for, with nine goalies dressing at some point for the club with favorable results, for the most part – minus the playoff success part.
Islanders fans deserve better, and when May rolls around, Sorokin is expected to sign his first NHL deal at the age of 24 – but to some fans, he might as well be 30 at this point given how long they had to wait. But the wait was totally worth it: KHL advanced stats are hard to come by, but Sorokin’s 26-10-3 record with a .935 save percentage is a step down for him during his time with CSKA Moscow. With a 134-64-22 record and 44 shutouts in 244 games, only a handful of goaltenders have come close to matching Sorokin’s body of work – most notably, Sorokin’s good buddy and New York rival Igor Shestyorkin of the Rangers.
Sorokin is a dazzling prospect that gained some extra interest ahead of the trade deadline. Reports suggested the Chicago Blackhawks were close to acquiring Sorokin to help bolster the team’s long-term depth. Robin Lehner was moved at the deadline, seemingly opening a spot for Sorokin, but the Islanders held on to the young Russian instead. And Sorokin has incredible potential and his athletic build and incredible reflexes remind scouts of a young Sergei Bobrovsky – other than his tumultuous campaign in Florida this season, that’s a good player to be compared to. The Islanders knew Sorokin had the potential to become a starting goalie in the NHL, and they’re closer to that reality.
Of course, signing Sorokin makes the contract situation for Thomas Greiss a bit more interesting. During his tenure in Uniondale/Brooklyn/Jupiter/wherever the Islanders play next, Greiss has emerged as one of the league’s most reliable backup goaltenders with a 101-60-17 record in 193 games. Greiss is a pending UFA and one many teams will want in on – he’s 34 with a lot of good hockey left in him. The Islanders already have Semyon Varlamov locked up for another three years. and part of that term for was to use him as a mentor for Sorokin, a fellow Russian.
If I had to make a (not-so) wild guess, the club will try and follow what the New York Rangers did with Shestyorkin, a close personal friend of Sorokin’s. Let him adjust to North American pro by letting him dominate in the minors – and if the Bridgeport Sound Tigers are anything like they were this season, they’ll need the help. Then, call up Sorokin when he’s comfortable and move Greiss at the trade deadline. Teams will be lining up for a veteran backup for the playoff stretch, so they can maximize on Greiss’ trade value if he keeps up his hot play. The Islanders can then use Semyon Varlamov as a mentor and get more out of their four-year, $20-million investment and, boom, it’s a win-win for all involved.
What’s nice about Sorokin is that he isn’t some fresh-faced kid with limited experience that you need to keep on a leash. He has played in parts of eight KHL seasons, has led the league in shutouts in consecutive seasons and has represented Russia internationally in some form since 2014 – in short, he’s accomplished for his age. This season, seven goalies under the age of 25 either shared or assumed starting duties in the league, and had he stayed healthy near the end, Shestyorkin would have joined the club. In Shestyorkin’s case, he was dominant in the AHL and deserved every opportunity he got in the NHL. But with Alexandar Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist already with the main club, gaining experience was a challenge. That changed mid-season when the Rangers finally gave Shestyorkin a chance and he proved he’s ready to be the goalie the team always (OK, maybe for just six years) dreamed of.
The Islanders that same opportunity with Sorokin. The club should still factor into the playoff hunt in 2020-21 and if there’s a chance on getting a maximum return on Greiss later on (assuming the team can sign him), there’s a great opportunity for the Islanders to come out as true winners. Sorokin is the man tasked with guiding the team to glory once again and all signs point towards him living up to the hype, but he hasn’t arrived yet. Give him a bit of a chance to learn the North American game and lifestyle and when he’s ready, promote him to the spotlight.
The kid has a bright future. Now it’s time for him to show us all why.
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.