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Taub: Semyon Varlamov Has Finally Arrived

The New York Islanders closed out calendar year 2019 on a very high note, thanks in large part to goaltender Semyon Varlamov.

Varlamov’s excellent 38-save performance propelled the Isles to a 4-3 win over the division-leading Washington Capitals and a 2-1-0 record on their three-game road trip.

Tuesday afternoon was just one of the fantastic showings from Varlamov over this recent three-month stretch, one that places him 14th among goaltenders in wins, 16th in save percentage and 15th in goals-against average. Those stats might not sound pleasing, but they are just the background noise to what has been a renaissance campaign for Varlamov to this point.

No, that doesn’t mean he’s returned to his 2013-14 form of being the runner-up to the Vezina Trophy. But a return to being one of the great goaltenders in the NHL and someone who gives his team a chance to win every night. And the Isles have been the beneficiaries of the  31-year-old’s resurgence this season; 14 of the Isles’ 25 wins have come with Varlamov manning the cage.

When we needed big saves, Varly stood on his head,” forward Casey Cizikas lauded about Varlamov after Tuesday’s win. “He was outstanding tonight and I think he was our MVP.”

Varlamov’s “arrival” back to legitimacy and his winning over of the Isles faithful just exemplifies that sometimes things take time.

When g.m. Lou Lamoriello let goaltender Robin Lehner walk in free agency, the blowback was swift. Lehner emerged as a fan favorite and was a Vezina finalist for his sensational season. Lamoriello turned around and signed Varlamov for $20 million dollars for the next four years nonetheless. Varlamov, already on the wrong side of 30, had been coming off his worst season since 2016-17 and lost his starter role with Colorado to backup Philipp Grubauer. There was a kicker though — Varlamov was very close with Islander goalie prospect and fellow Russian, Ilya Sorokin. Varlamov is from Samara; Sorokin hails from Mezhdurechensk.

Following the signing, it was revealed that Lamoriello had been courting Varlamov for awhile. Their partnership dated back to when he tried to acquire him on the draft floor in 2018.

“To be honest, I tried to trade for Varlamov last year when I first came here,” Lamoriello told reporters back in July. “I’ve followed his career from when he was drafted. I remember how he was as a prospect and what his athleticism and ability is. In my opinion, our goaltending staff here (director Mitch Korn and coach Piero Greco) is second to none, and I rely on their expertise more than my own and they are extremely high on him and have been high on him and certainly endorsed the direction we took.”

So Lou got his guy, but Isles fans were still skeptical. After all, they had just witnessed their duo — Lehner and Thomas Greiss — win the William M. Jennings and lead the team to the second round of the playoffs. Plus, Varlamov native looked to be headed on the downside of his career after his first six-plus seasons were filled with solid, quality play. Varlamov though, made it a point to sign here because he felt it gave him the best chance at winning a Stanley Cup.

It wasn’t until his third start of the season — October 12th against Florida, the start of the Isles’ historic 17-game point streak as well — that Varlamov showed glimpses of where his confidence is now. On that night, he made 37 saves and was perfect in the shootout in a 3-2 victory. Since then he’s been off to the races and recently taken the starter role despite head coach Barry Trotz’s strict goalie rotation.

“In his games, he looks more comfortable on a consistent basis than maybe earlier in the year,” coach Barry Trotz said to Newsday following the team’s practice Wednesday. “And that’s because he’s been around. He’s worked with the goaltending coaches. He’s seen how the group in front of him plays. It becomes more natural for him.”

Varlamov will be key to the Islanders if they are going to — and they most likely will — earn their second consecutive playoff berth. From an individual standpoint, his bounce-back should be refreshing for the fanbase because Greiss is a UFA after this season and the organization doesn’t have another NHL-caliber goalie that can jump right in (unless Sorokin makes his way to North America). It should also provide them hope that he will be able to keep competing at this high-level for the length of his contract which will take him till age 35.

Those worries can be meant for another time. For now, Varlamov has the chance to produce his best season since 2013-14 where he recorded 41 wins and was named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. His case for his second All-Star nomination looks a little more realistic now that goalie Joonas Korpisalo, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ goalie and their All-Star representative for the Metro Division, recently underwent meniscus surgery that will keep him out four to six weeks. Seeing him in St. Louis along with the face of the franchise, Mathew Barzal, would be a feather in Varlamov’s cap and truly prove he’s one of the best in the game again.

The Islanders have become a team of second chances. Varlamov’s season has been another reminder that when a player has something to prove, it’s worth taking a chance on him. His arrival has resurrected his career and allowed the Islanders to be one of the top teams in the NHL once again.

There’s still another half a season to go, but the real Semyon Varlamov has arrived and hopefully he’s here to stay for a long time.

I tweeted out yesterday that the Islanders getting an outdoor game at Belmont Park would be an excellent way for the franchise to commemorate their move to their new arena in September of 2021.

The track at Belmont holds 100,000 people and has 33,000 seats which would sell out based on who the Isles’ opponent would be. The organization has only participated once outdoors in 2014 when they lost to the rival Rangers 2-1 at Yankee Stadium in late January. It was a rousing success despite the result.

The NHL hasn’t featured New York as a Winter Classic destination since the Rangers and Buffalo Sabres played at Citi Field on New Year’s Day 2018. Imagine a spectacle of 100,000 or more hockey fans looking down upon the iconic infield at Belmont against those same Rangers, the Capitals, Penguins or even, the Toronto Maple Leafs?

It sounds like it would be spectacular and a banner day for the Islander organization.

The bottom-six for the Islanders has really stepped it up of late. They were crucial to the team’s successful season a year ago. And just to let you know how vital they are again to the Isles’ record and strong play thus far, they’re 9-2-0 when one of the goals come from a bottom-six forward.

Follow me on Twitter at @RTaub_





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