Before the NHL season came to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Semyon Varlamov was nearing the conclusion of his first year with the New York Islanders.
Varlamov, who signed a four-year, $20 million contract last summer, had spent a majority of this season as a part of the 1A-1B duo with veteran Thomas Greiss.
The Islanders brought in Varlamov after they couldn’t come to terms with Masterton Winner and Vezina finalist, Robin Lehner.
G.M. Lou Lamoriello made it abundantly clear he was courting Varlamov’s services even before free agency last July. Multiple reports indicated that Lamoriello tried to trade for the 31-year-old at the draft in 2018.
When training camp began, there was a sense that Varlamov would be the unquestionable starter because of his contract and the fact the organization zeroed in on him to turn back to his elite status when he was one of the top goalies in the league.
Barry Trotz had other ideas. The Isles’s head coach believed that he could repeat his method of his goaltenders splitting games throughout the season. It was a smashing success this season prior, where the team was awarded the William M. Jennings Trophy.
Still, Varlamov himself knew he had big shoes to fill, and was more than ready for that battle.
“I just treat pressure as a privilege,” he told Newsday back in September. “I’ve played with the best players in the world, and I’m very happy to a part of that, part of this organization and part of this league. “The pressure has always been there. It’s going to be there every game. Every time you step on the ice you feel the pressure. I think you just need to know how to deal with the pressure. I think pressure brings the best out of you.”
Varlamov’s first appearances in blue and orange weren’t kind to him. His first three starts, he allowed eight goals on 84 shots against.
That third game though — a 3-2 shootout win over Florida and his first as an Islander — was the first time he looked comfortable.
Following that first victory, Varlamov settled in and started to play extremely well. From October 12th until November 23rd, the Russian netminder didn’t suffer a regulation loss. His excellent run, coupled with the Islanders going on an incredible 17-game point streak.
After the streak, the team began to slow down. But Varlamov was still putting up fantastic numbers through December and early January. He was still winning games, and a possible All-Star nomination was beginning to pick up steam. All that talk quickly dissolved when the Capitals’ Braden Holtby was selected as the goalie representative for the Metropolitan Division.
— NHL (@NHL) January 7, 2020
There was another slim chance he could be a reserve when Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury just weeks prior to the All-Star Game. Varlamov was again snubbed. Tristan Jarry, the standout rookie from the Penguins, was chosen instead.
Out of the break, Varlamov had been solid statistically — .907 save percentage in 14 games played — despite the Islanders free fall in the Metro. A 43-save performance in a 1-0 shutout loss in Vegas in February was probably one of his most impressive outings all year, if not his best.
When the season was shut down a few weeks back, Varlamov’s record through 45 games played was 19-14-6 with a 2.62 GAA, and .914 save percentage. The latter two numbers are towards the bottom of the league in that category.
Entering next season, Varlamov will most likely be the number one. Greiss is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and rumors have surfaced that his fellow countryman and friend, Ilya Sorokin, is Long Island-bound once the KHL lets their players be free to sign with NHL clubs on May 1st. Lamoriello has also been given every indication that will be what happens as well.
Even with that happening, Varlamov still had a quality first campaign with the Isles.
If the season was still going, he might have been one of the sole reasons — along with star center Mathew Barzal — for why the Islanders made the postseason for a second straight season.