The New York Islanders announced two transactions at the end of the day that are curious yet were widely expected for a day or more: Tom Kuhnhackl (which broke a couple of days ago) and Semyon Varlamov, a free agent goalie who is coming off a struggling year with the Colorado Avalanche.
The Varlamov deal is for four years — we later learned at an average of $5 million per season — and was talked about among the hockey press for at least a day. For some reason, that’s how the Islanders landed on their next goalie while their incumbent Vezina finalist Robin Lehner, who is younger and coming off a much better season, signed for just one year with the Chicago Blackhawks.
It’s been a strange day.
Varlamov:— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) July 1, 2019
2019-20 $6 M
2021-22 $6 M
2022-23 $4 M https://t.co/zZx14weu6r
No-trade clause in Years 1 and 2, 16-team list in 3 and 4, too:
Semyon Varlamov's 4 year / $20,000,000 contract with the #Islanders includes a Full NTC in years 1 and 2, and then it turns into a Modified NTC (16 team No Trade list) in years 3 and 4. https://t.co/nxT4B5cZoY pic.twitter.com/ypso2o7K6W— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) July 2, 2019
Varlamov was a Vezina finalists back in 2013-14, which is six seasons ago — and it’s a shock to think the former Capital was with the Avalanche for eight seasons.
He is 31 now and coming off his second sub-par season (.909 save percentage in 49 games) in his last three years. But even last season he showed the ability to be very good in stretches, so there’s hope that good health and guidance from the Islanders goalie coaching staff can help right the ship.
Still, it’s puzzling why the Islanders take on the risk, for this amount of term, rather than renew with Lehner.
UPDATE: Here is Lehner explaining his view on how negotiations fell apart:
Here are Robin Lehner's full comments on how things went down with the Islanders. Not a good look. pic.twitter.com/N18Oot20x5— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) July 2, 2019
That brings us to the working theory for going for Varlamov: that it’s part of a bridge to KHL star and championship-winning goalie Ilya Sorokin, who is a good friend of Varlamov’s and has expressed interest in coming to the NHL when his current KHL contract expires after next season. The Islanders hold Sorokin’s rights, and he will only turn 24 this summer. Sorokin could very well be their goalie of the future.
That has upside but also its own level of risk, since KHL goalie success does not always translate to the NHL. But Lou Lamoriello likes to make big bets on his goalies. For whatever reason, Varlamov — and Sergei Bobrovsky, the target earlier this week who signed with Florida — fits Lou’s strategy. Apparently, Lehner does not, even at the same price and shorter term.
Domestic Violence Case
There is one other serious item to note here, which you may have seen referenced on social media or elsewhere: Varlamov was accused of domestic violence by his former girlfriend in 2013. The prosecutor declined to press charges, citing lack of evidence (but pointing out that doesn’t mean they didn’t believe her.) A civil case on the matter actually went to a jury trial. The result was that jurors awarded Varlamov $126,608 in damages on an abuse of process claim after his attorneys argued the woman was trying to get a payout and evidence did not support her claims. However, her attorney said the court kept them from providing ample evidence.