The preseason is under way, ending an off-season without much change for the Islanders. So, over the next three weeks, we’ll be previewing the season in a bit of a different light by looking deep into the Isles’ organizational health. The idea behind this series is to blend the idea of short-term prognostication with a long-term outlook. Theoretically, looking at this positionally is not the most optimal way to approach such an outlook, but it does create a good stopping point as we work through the team’s situational context.
That all said, let’s start with the goalies.
The 2019-20 Depth Chart
Semyon Varlamov comes to the Islanders after eight seasons and 389 games with the Colorado Avalanche. The Russian goalie signed a four-year, $20 million contract on July 1 and is expected to replace Robin Lehner as the team’s starting goalie. This was a bit of a questionable personnel and contract decision after Lehner’s spectacular season, but the Isles’ staff has insisted they’ve been fans of Varlamov for a while and — for better or worse — opted decisively go in this direction early in the off-season.
The historical differences between Lehner and Varlamov are not far off. Even including the recency of last season, both players have played to a mix of strong and poor seasons with no real consistency. The above table highlights each player’s goals saved above average over time, highlighting the variance of their performance throughout the years. Each goalie has been “better” three times, and their total GSAA outputs have only a 5.21 difference of each other over the last six years.
In fact, Varlamov and Lehner both grade pretty well on Micah Blake McCurdy’s Goalie Ability Estimate on HockeyViz.com, which essentially tries to isolate the probability of an unblocked shot becoming a goal by determining a goalie’s true skill.
So, if we make two grand assumptions: A) the Islanders system helped Robin Lehner have the season he had (maybe), and B) Varlamov and Lehner are, historically and currently, similarly able (probably), we can at least argue there’s not a profound drop in skill between the two. Seems fair enough.
The real risk is within the term of Varlamov’s contract. The above table uses CapFriendly’s database to show the most similar contracts based on three selected criteria: cap hit %, age at the time of signing, and term of the contract.
Typically, comparables provide a range of results. The above deals are no different with Jaroslav Halak’s Islanders contract arguably the most efficient of the bunch. This is a general indication that there’s a pretty low ceiling in a contract such as this. Offering longer terms to goalies is inherently risky (it would be for Lehner too), but as with anything in hockey, especially to goalies who are near (or over) 30 years old.
Since we’re focused on the short-term outlook, this does not really impact the upcoming 2019-20 season. Varlamov can be expected to have a “fine” season by his standards, which based on his historical performance is a “fine” thing for the Islanders (but not as good as last year, which would also be the case for Lehner). Of course, there’s a range of outcomes that defines “fine,” but since he is a goalie, his outcomes are hard to predict… and those outcomes can swing in both the Lehner direction or the 2014-15 Chad Johnson direction.
Luckily enough for the Islanders, they have a contingency plan in 33-year old Thomas Greiss, now entering his final contracted season ($3.33 million AAV) with the team. Greiss was similarly outstanding last season, posting a .927 all-situations save percentage while playing a huge part in the Isles’ transformation of “worst-to-first” when it comes to goals against.
Like Lehner, regression is almost surely in the cards for Greiss. To note, regression does not inherently mean bad. It means his numbers will likely be closer to his career average (.915), which is more simply defined as “less good.” Still, at the very least the Islanders have two legitimate options who can be “good,” which is beneficial when discussing the volatile nature of the goaltending position.
That said, having two solid goalies also presents a one-year scenario where the Islanders are paying well above average in goaltender cap allocation. In an ideal world, it’s best to pay down on goaltending (as they did last season). As I’ve outlined in the past, high salaried goaltenders do not correlate with high performance goaltenders.
In other words, goaltending is abstract. There’s a lot of goalies and a lot of different outcomes, so paying up for the position is likely not going to generate a strong ROI in the long-run. Still, in this case, we’re talking about the Isles’ bearing the brunt of an expensive tandem for one season and even when compared to other top ten teams, they’re not nearly in as fragile of a state (i.e. too reliant on one player to be good) as some of their competition.
As we can see above, Montreal needs Carey Price to be good (probably). Florida also needs Sergei Bobrovsky to be good (probably). Of course as the Blues can tell you, unproven goalies come out of nowhere (hence the “probably”), but regardless, there is tangible opportunity cost of overpaying goalies. The more dollars allocated towards positional volatility, the less dollars you can allocate towards positional stability.
The above is a bit tangential when it comes to the Islanders. Varlamov is essentially in the middle of the pack in terms of “top salaried goaltender on a given roster.” Greiss is in the top-three for the “lesser paid goalie,” but it’s (now) a one year commitment that has not seemingly impacted the Isles’ flexibility to alter their roster as they see fit.
In short, we know expectations are high coming off last year and we know Varlamov and Greiss are the two guys this year. They are a bit “overpaid,” but the opportunity cost of having both on the roster has seemingly not precluded the team from actively upgrading their roster.
Depth wise, the Islanders find themselves in decent shape. Christopher Gibson has proven to be a solid tertiary option, despite modest AHL success. After him, the Isles have three goalies in the mix: AHL journeyman Jared Coreau, and prospects Linus Soderstrom and Jakub Skarek (more on them below). None of these guys are likely to see the NHL with any real frequency this season, but it’s nice to have bullets in the chamber.
Long Term Outlook
All of that said, where does that leave the Islanders’ outlook going forward?
The first thing that needs to be established is the concept of roster churn. Roster churn is good. The more flexibility you have to make decisions, the more opportunity there is to improve the team. (Results not guaranteed). In the Isles context, Semyon Varlamov and Jakub Skarek are the only two Isles goalies signed for the 2020-21 season. So, what does that mean?
Varlamov’s $5 million AAV will hold at or decrease its current 6.14% allocation of the cap ceiling, which is affordable and “fine” as long as he continues to play at his historical level (which is not guaranteed). And although there are legitimate questions tied to his contract, it really shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if the Islanders don’t compound his contract with another costly backup.
That brings us to Thomas Greiss, an impending free agent who is entering his fifth season with New York. Greiss has largely been a good Islander who has stepped in on multiple occasions when the team needed him in a big way. On a historical, emotional level it would be easy for the team to re-sign him. But on a practical level, it probably doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Consider two scenarios: one where Thomas Greiss has another great season and one where he has a very poor season. If he has a great season, he’s likely to earn a raise - which, with Varlamov’s contract, the Isles can ill-afford (and two aging goaltenders is probably a recipe of some level of disaster). If he has a bad - or “worse than last year but not disastrous” - season, it’ should be easier to let him walk for economical reasons.
And we can’t discount his age, which is really unfair... but also simple reality. Greiss will be entering his age-34 season next year, and the truth is his best days are probably behind him (again, results not guaranteed). Paying on term for the backside of a goaltending career just screams “mistake,” and it would be one the Isles can’t really afford given their overall cap structure. (There is a third option where Greiss returns on a one year deal, a scenario could work for the Isles, but it cannot be assumed that Greiss would sign such a short term deal at this time.)
The general trend is that teams are smartening up and paying down on goaltending, which is pretty well evidenced by there being twelve teams spending less than 8% of their total cap on the position. In other words, less is more - probably.
We also can’t discount the suggestion that Ilya Sorokin is still very much an option in the future, albeit somewhat of an intangible one. But his numbers in the KHL remain outstanding and he’s still considered a top ten goalie prospect. He’s not that young anymore and should he sign his ELC will be one (1) year, but that would at least keep short-term costs down while the team starts to use their surplus cap space on core players like Mathew Barzal, Ryan Pulock, and Devon Toews.
Sorokin is not a guarantee to come over, but his contract does end after this upcoming season, which means it can’t totally be ruled out either. Should he decide to stay in Russia, the Isles won’t have much of a problem. The goalie market is always saturated and acquiring a backup on a short-term deal would be pretty feasible.
There is also a possibility that one of Linus Soderstrom or Jakub Skarek turn into a viable NHL player. Both prospects have been highly regarded at times, indicating there is some general potential that scouts and analysts have seen. But again, there is real unpredictability with goaltending, so really... who knows? Basically, the Islanders can’t exactly rely on either of these players to develop into NHL players, but they also should not create inflexibility (i.e. sign a second goalie with term) at this position in case one of them do and they need to adapt.
Short Term Outlook: B
The Islanders do find themselves in a fairly good situation at this position, as they roster a very viable tandem at this position. As the position is tough to predict, both goalies’ performance could result in a wide range of outcomes (both positively and negatively). Regardless, such a quality tandem presents a real contingency that could mitigate any possible drop in performance from either Varlamov or Greiss.
In terms of cap management, the Isles are towards the top of the league as over 10% of their spend is allocated to the goalies. This lowers their grade simply due to a tougher road of achieving a positive return on their investment. However, as neither contract seems to have impacted future moves and because there are real contingencies in place, it would be unfair to drop such a grade very low. As such, the grade is generally based at the two goalies’ present skill and their likelihood to maintain their historical level of performance.
Long Term Outlook: C+
The years on the Semyon Varlamov contract are what drives this grade lower than the short-term outlook, as the Isles will be paying Varlamov well into his 30s. While the Isles still carry a top prospect on their reserve roster, there is a legitimate unknown element of if he will ever play for the organization.
That ambiguity creates an array of options for Lou Lamoriello and staff going forward. How the Islanders answer that question will be key not just within the context of the goaltender position, but their overall cap strategy. It’s true the team still carries one of hockey’s best goaltending prospects on their reserve roster, but it’s unclear if and when he will ever play a game for the team. As a result, it’s possible the team may have to rely on NHL veterans throughout the life of the Varlamov contract, which likely will be less cost effective and present less upside than developing an internal option.
That makes for a slightly less bullish outlook (but nowhere near outright negativity), specifically due to the situation’s inherent ambiguity and Varlamov’s aging curve. And overall, the Isles are in pretty decent shape.