The New York Islanders on Tuesday signed goaltender of the future Ilya Sorokin to a $2 million contract for next season.
The deal includes $1 million in salary and a $1 million bonus. A day earlier, the Islanders signed Sorokin to an entry-level deal for the remainder of this season even though he’s not eligible to play.
Sorokin, 24, is considered one of the top prospects at any position not currently in the NHL. A third-round pick of the Islanders in 2014, he was among the Kontinental Hockey League’s best goalies this past season with a 1.50 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
Two other teams signed Russian prospects Monday who can’t compete in the resumption of this season. The Montreal Canadiens signed defenseman Alexander Romanov for three years, and the Minnesota Wild signed forward Kirill Kaprizov for two years.
All three players are burning a year by signing for this season, a way of getting to more lucrative contracts sooner in the future.
The Islanders are one of several teams going into the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoffs with a goaltending competition. Coach Barry Trotz said he’ll let it play out between Russian Semyon Varlamov and German Thomas Greiss to determine who might start Game 1 of the qualifying round against the Florida Panthers on Aug. 1.
While Varlamov is under contract for three more seasons — perhaps in later years to mentor Sorokin — Greiss is a pending free agent. Sorkin backed up for the gold medal-winning Olympic Athletes from Russia at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games and showed his NHL potential over several KHL seasons and world championships.
Prospects like Kaprizov, Romanov, Sorokin won’t be eligible for NHL return, playoffs
NHL teams hoping to get a playoff/return-to-play boost from the likes of Kirill Kaprizov (Wild), Ilya Sorokin (Islanders), and Alexander Romanov (Canadiens) seem to be out of luck. At least for what’s left of 2019-20 for the NHL, aka the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov and others can’t play yet — but can burn a year off ELCs
There is a wrinkle, though.
Such reports indicate that Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov and others could burn a year off of their entry-level contracts, even though they can’t participate in the NHL return to play to wrap up 2019-20.
Now, would it be logical to burn a year off of entry-level deals for the likes of Kaprizov, Sorokin, and Romanov? Probably not. Overall, there are likely too many drawbacks for the players, teams, or both.
Take Kaprizov and the Wild, for example.
If you want detail about the Kaprizov/Wild/KHL situation, Russo’s covered those bases multiple times at The Athletic, including here (sub required). But to simplify things, the Wild and/or Kaprizov probably won’t go for burning off 2019-20 from a two-year entry-level deal because:
The Wild would only really have Kaprizov signed for 2020-21. While that would finally draw him to the NHL, it would merely give them a single season to gauge Kaprizov’s value. And, with the COVID-19 pandemic looming as a continued threat to stability, who knows if they’d even get that season?
Considering that the 2020-21 NHL season might start in December or January, Kaprizov would be stuck idle since March. Meanwhile, the KHL aims to begin its 2020-21 season around September. Kaprizov would risk serious uncertainty for limited gain.
So … yeah, teams have some reason to at least consider burning a year off of entry-level deals for the likes of Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin. But it just doesn’t seem like the wisest path, generally speaking.
With that out of the way, let’s take a quick look at Kaprizov and the Wild, Sorokin and the Islanders, Romanov and the Canadiens.
Waiting game continues for Wild, fans, Kaprizov
Plenty of people deem Kaprizov, 23, as the best player in hockey not playing in the NHL.
Kaprizov ranked first in the KHL in goals (33 in 57 games), also finishing close to the scoring title with 62 points. This was no fluke, as Kaprizov also scored the most goals (30) in the KHL during the 2018-19 season. Doing so at such a young age only leaves Wild fans even more anxious to see him.
And, unlike other young scorers, it doesn’t sound like many critique Kaprizov’s overall game. Back in May, The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin collected some rave reviews about Kaprizov, noting comparisons to “Artemi Panarin‘s mind” combined with Vladimir Tarasenko‘s tank-like body.
Sounds pretty good! The Wild should probably think about bringing Kaprizov over, eh? *Ducks*
But, yeah, a Wild team searching for good news and breakthrough talent could sure use Kaprizov. Maybe next season? Sadly, it sounds like at least a medium-sized maybe.
When you compare immediate concerns, Ilya Sorokin seems more like a luxury for the Islanders.
After all, the Islanders enjoyed another season of above-average goaltending. Semyon Varlamov was solid, and much like in 2018-19, Thomas Greiss provided comparable work to the Islanders’ would-be No.1. The sum result wasn’t at the level of what Greiss and Robin Lehner accomplished, but plenty of NHL teams must envy the Islanders’ goaltending.
So they don’t “need” Sorokin, seemingly.
But we’ve seen teams put together big playoff runs with rookie goalies intermittently since at least Ken Dryden swooped in, dominated, and leaned pensively on his goal stick for the dynasty-era Canadiens. That thought goes for goalies of various pedigrees, but particularly someone like Sorokin.
Besides, at 24, Sorokin’s getting to that age where the Islanders want to see what they have. Varlamov is 31, and Greiss is on an expiring contract and is 34.
However unlikely, a Sorokin-powered playoff run would’ve been the dream. Getting a better idea of where Sorokin ranks on the depth chart would have been nice, too.
Canadiens won’t get to make defense deeper with Romanov
How much of an impact would Alexander Romanov make for the Canadiens? Answers may vary.
The Ahtletic’s Scott Wheeler barely squeezed Romanov on his top 50 drafted prospects list at No. 48 (sub required). That said, Wheeler admitted that he’s lower on Romanov than many in the hockey world. This seems to be true, as Romanov placed 10th on The Hockey News’ future watch list, representing a meteoric rise from 45th the previous year.
Perhaps some of that variance comes down to how much weight given experts put on tournaments vs. season play.
The now-20-year-old defenseman earned top defenseman billing at the 2019 World Junior Championship, and excelled during the 2020 tournament, as well.
On the other hand, Romanov’s KHL stats have been modest, including a single goal over two KHL seasons (86 regular-season games).
But, in cases like Romanov’s, it’s often a debate regarding “How good?” The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin wrote that Romanov “looks like a future top-pair defenseman.” Wheeler sees Romanov more as a “sound defenseman” who could help in transition, yet probably won’t put up big numbers.
Either way, the Canadiens absolutely could use a player like Romanov. The better he ends up, the happier they are, of course. But even a steady presence would have helped against the Penguins.
Plenty of other prospects not involved in NHL return beyond Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin
Naturally, there are noteworthy players who won’t get to participate in the NHL return to play beyond Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin. This post isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but two other players come to mind:
Grigori Denisenko – The Panthers share some of the same space as the Wild and Canadiens as bubble-adjacent teams who could use a boost. Denisenko isn’t considered as surefire as Kaprizov, but there’s a lot to like about the 20-year-old forward. That said, this would hurt even more if Denisenko was a defenseman, because Florida is pretty brutal in that area.
Jack Dugan – Like Romanov at 48, Dugan snuck into Wheeler’s top 50 at 47 (Denisenko ranks at 36, Kaprizov sits at six). Wheeler ranks among those that wonder if Dugan would make an immediate impact for the Golden Knights out of the NCAA. Some wonder if Dugan can eventually become a top-six forward. In other words, this isn’t necessarily a Cale Makar-style instant success story.
But Dugan breaks from some of the others on this list in being a prospect for a more proven team. The Golden Knights rank among the top four Western Conference teams, thus they’ll participate in the Round Robin for Seeding. I’d argue that Vegas stands out as one of the best of even that smaller group.
So imagine if Dugan can merely give them a boost? It’s arguable that Dugan could be a bigger deal than maybe a better prospect for a more needy team.
We won’t get to find out, though. While it’s the safer move, it’s a letdown for teams hoping for Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov, Denisenko, Dugan, and others.
This post aims to round up some of the perspectives from players who have gotten the chance to get back a bit, though. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive list of every team back in action for Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan.
One curious question is: how long does it take to shake off the rust. Considering that the NHL is still trying to hash out details for training camps (aka Phase 3), the answer appears subjective.
“If I’m off the ice for two days, it feels like I’ve never skated in my life before, so three months was a little bit nerve-wracking …” Oilers defenseman Matt Benning said.
Benning noted that it takes different players different amounts of time to get used to edgework and other skating factors. But it sounds like Benning specifically sits in the “more the merrier” camp. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
If you need a moment of zen, enjoy this footage of the Oilers beginning Phase 2:
Tavares doing Tavares things early in NHL Phase 2
Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares is known for being something of a thinking man’s hockey star. Sometimes that drive can manifest itself in ways that are … honestly, kind of nerdy.
“There’s a pretty big-time crunch on being in the arena; you only have about 45 minutes to an hour to complete your workout and you’ve got about 40 minutes on the ice,” Tavares said. “The windows are fairly small, but the actual work we’re able to get in is going to go a long way in helping us prepare and get ready. The intensity is there.”
There’s also no substitute for family. Bailey acknowledged that the “hub city” system will take some getting used to. At least he’d have his Islanders teammates, though.
“It’ll definitely be different,” Bailey said, via Cory Wright of the Islanders’ website. “No matter how it all comes together, when, how, if, whatever the case may be. It won’t be what we are accustomed to. But when you’re with the team it kind of gives you that feeling of normalcy.”
Plenty still needs to be settled before NHL goes from Phase 2 to Phase 3
Overall, the Phase 2 return to ice seems more like a trickle than a stampede.
For every instance such as Marc-Andre Fleury getting geared up with the Golden Knights, there are players who want to avoid taking risks, or teams facing restrictions.
As with that forward focus, this isn’t a comprehensive list of NHL free agent goalies. This revolves around veterans, with an admittedly arbitrary cutoff of 30 years or older.
Said veteran NHL free agent goalies must also hit a sweet spot. We’re ignoring goalies who should be no-brainer signings (Robin Lehner‘s been one of the best netminders, and he’s also only 28). We’re also going to skate past goalies with dubious chances of being signed to NHL contracts.
You might think such specific parameters would mean zero veteran NHL free agent goalies. Nope, there’s a pretty interesting list. Actually, if you feel like someone prominent didn’t make the cut, do tell.
(We’ll know you are trolling if you blurt out “Robin Lehner,” by the way.)
I was tempted to leave Crawford off of this list. The reasoning is simple enough: Crawford has plenty of name recognition, and he was actually quite good (16-20-3, but with a .917 save percentage) this season.
Honestly, the Blackhawks might be justified in flinching at bringing back Crawford for a more cynical reason. If Chicago wants to blow things up, or at least institute a mini-reboot, Crawford may foil such plans by … being too good.
The 2018-19 season stands as one of just two seasons where Crawford’s Goals Saved Against Average was on the negative side. With a 9.01 mark for 2019-20, Crawford ranked ahead of the likes of Carter Hart (4.47), stellar backup Jaroslav Halak (8.83), and resurgent Cam Talbot (7.53).
It would be absurd if someone didn’t want Crawford. The NHL can be an absurd league sometimes, though.
During the 2019 NHL trade deadline, it was a little surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade Howard. Outsiders can only speculate if it was more about then-GM Ken Holland asking for too much, or the market being truly, totally dry.
But, either way, Howard’s market value looks much different (read: worse) after a brutal 2019-20, both for the Red Wings and for their veteran goalie. The 36-year-old suffered through a lousy .882 save percentage this season after being steady for two seasons (.909 and .910) and fantastic in 2016-17 (.927).
My guess is that someone will be interested in Howard, but it would be a surprise if he wore a Red Wings sweater in 2020-21. I’d also guess he’s slated to be a clear backup.
There are goalies teams talk themselves out of (like, seemingly, Robin Lehner). Then there are goalies who gain a lot of leeway, such as Smith.
Familiarity sure seemed to help Smith land with the Oilers. It’s safe to assume that Dave Tippett fondly recalled Smith’s outstanding work during the Coyotes’ 2012 Western Conference Final run. That nostalgia didn’t lead to enough timely saves, though, as Mikko Koskinen soundly surpassed Smith (and Talbot was better in Calgary).
At 38, and with two straight below-average seasons under his belt, Smith may be teetering out of the league. Then again, he’s a big goalie, can handle the puck, and some might weigh those increasingly distant memories almost as heavily as Tippett and the Oilers did last summer.
Other NHL free agent goalies
I assume that 34-year-old goalies Thomas Greiss and Anton Khudobin should earn ample interest. They’ve both been fantastic, so I didn’t feel they needed a section. If interest isn’t certain though … it should be.
For the most part, Ryan Miller‘s future hinges on his own choices, and preference to be in the California area. Still, he’s worth mentioning, being that he’s 39 and didn’t perform as well in 2019-20.
Brian Elliott, 35, came through at times for the Flyers when Hart was injured. The overall picture of his season wasn’t pretty, however. It was fair to wonder about his future last offseason, and he’ll need to keep his expectations modest if he wants to stick in the NHL.
The curious trend of Craig Anderson flip-flopping average and elite seasons ended a while ago. It’s now been three rough seasons for the 39-year-old. Maybe someone would believe he could regain some of his past form on a more … hopeful team than the Senators?
Aaron Dell ranked as one of the NHL’s better backups in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Then the past two seasons happened, casting serious doubt over the 31-year-old’s future. Perhaps a team might pin that on the Sharks’ system and give Dell, say, a competitive third goalie spot?
Could be mostly sad emojis for 30-year-old Keith Kinkaid.
The Islanders will need to lock up a couple of critical restricted free agents this upcoming offseason but have a lot of components signed to long-term extensions.
The acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the NHL Trade Deadline solidified their depth down the middle for years to come. Mathew Barzal has the potential to blossom into an elite centerman while Brock Nelson and Pageau can flip flop between the second and third line. Heart and soul player Casey Cizikas will continue to anchor the fourth line.
The newest addition to the core will be goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who is expected to come to the NHL at the start of next season. The Islanders drafted Sorokin in the third round of the 2014 draft and the Russian netminder has spent the past six seasons in the KHL. He has long been considered one of the best goalies not playing in the NHL. Throughout his career with CSKA, he never finished with a save percentage below .929 and is expected to produce at a similar level in North America.
Islanders goalie coach Mitch Korn has helped develop some of the League’s best goaltenders and Sorokin could be next in line.
While the Islanders have a lot of their core signed to long-term contracts, the organization still needs a high-scoring winger to manufacture offense.
The Carolina Hurricanes swept the Islanders in a second-round series during last year’s postseason as they won four straight and advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. New York only managed to score five goals in those four games and were unable to solve its offensive deficiencies.
The Islanders play a fundamentally sound defensive system but need someone who can create offense on their own to change the momentum within a game. Barzal has a chance to be that type of game-breaker in today’s NHL but you need more than one player with that skillset.
In addition to their lack of offensive punch, the Islanders lost their defensive structure when Adam Pelech was lost for the season in early January. General manager Lou Lamoriello thought he solved the problem with the addition of Andy Greene from the New Jersey Devils but the Islanders went 2-5-4 in the 11 games he played and finished in a seven-game skid.
Coach Barry Trotz and his staff need to examine why the absence of one player impacted their system as much as it did.
The impact a coach has on any given team has long been disputed, but the effect Trotz has had on the Islanders is undeniable.
Ever since Trotz inked a five-year contract with the orange and blue, he brought a credibility to the team on the ice. The Islanders became one of the most defensively sound teams in the league and instantly became a playoff contender. With Trotz behind the bench, the Islanders will reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs on a consistent basis.
Besides strong leadership behind the bench, the Islanders have developed a strong culture inside the locker room. Players play for one another and there is a system of accountability that was lacking before Trotz arrived.
Overall, the Islanders should be in the playoff discussion for years to come with a disciplined structure, strong goaltending and a true difference-maker behind the bench. However, in order to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and not just a team that qualifies for the postseason consistently, they need to add a dynamic forward.