The New York Islanders waited a long time to find a franchise goalie. In 2014, they drafted Russian goaltender Ilya Sorokin in the third round, but it took a long time to convince him to come to the United States. Finally, in the summer of 2020, Islanders general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello brought him over, and Sorokin was worth the wait. He has established himself as one of the best goalies in the league and continues to improve.
Last season, Sorokin started 52 games. Even though the Islanders struggled, he had a great season with 26 wins in 52 starts and a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.40. Sorokin also had one of the best save percentages (SV%) in the league at .925. The most impressive stat, however, is his 16 shutouts in only 131 career starts, meaning 12% of his starts result in a shutout.
Making a Case for the Vezina
Despite having a career season and being the Islanders’ most valuable player, Boston Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy. The Bruins are having a historical season, breaking the record for most wins in a single season with 63, so far. Ullmar had a stellar season, posting a 1.98 GAA and a .938 SV% to lead the NHL. While Ullmark has had a remarkable season, he is also on one of the best teams of all time. The Bruins have a stellar defense core. That said, Ulmark ranks 17th in the league in games started, while Sorokin ranks fourth with 12 more games.
Sorokin is top five in every major goalie category, playing on a team that has struggled defensively. The 27-year-old has had a heavy workload while the Islanders continue to fight for their playoff lives. He is playing almost every night because he always gives them a chance to win.
“I think it’s just his demeanor and his focus,” head coach Lane Lambert said. “He’s been asked (by the media) within the last week about how he blocks everything out — he’s a very focused individual that has certainly come a long way in his short career, and we feel like he’s in a good spot right now” (from “Ilya Sorokin, looking locked-in, might be all the Islanders need to make the playoffs”, The Athletic, 4/6/23).
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Sorokin should be considered for the Hart Trophy based on his importance to the team. However, that will almost certainly go to Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, who is having a record-breaking season. Sorokin leads all goalies in goals saved above expected with 52.7, according to Evolving Hockey, which is just 0.3 behind Henrik Lundqvist’s 2009-10 season for the analytics era record (from “NHL awards watch: The Norris Trophy race intensifies in the final month”, The Athletic, 4/10/23). Even if Ullmark wins the Vezina because of his team’s success, Sorokin is a more talented goalie and ranks top-three in the league.
Possibly the Best Goalie in Franchise History
The Islanders have not had a long list of elite goaltenders in their history. After the four-time Stanley Cup winner Billy Smith, there isn’t a goalie who comes close to Sorokin. He is already eighth all-time in wins for the franchise and tied Rick DiPietro for third all-time in shutouts with 16. According to Islanders statistician Eric Hornick, after his shutout against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday, Sorokin became the first goalie in franchise history with multiple seasons of at least six shutouts.
Sorokin may not have four Cups like Smith, but his SV% is considerably better. Smith finished his career with a .895 SV% while Sorokin’s is at .924%. Smith also played on one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history. That same dynasty included five players in the NHL Hall of Fame as well as the GM and head coach. Sorokin doesn’t have that advantage, unfortunately, but it’s not stopping him from putting up elite numbers. He has the second-best GAA in franchise history right now and has a long way to go in his career, so his numbers will continue to improve.
There is no doubt the Islanders’ success will depend on Sorokin. He is the type of goaltender that is capable of stealing a series. The Islanders waited a long time for him, and he’s far exceeded expectations. He is well on track to become the best goaltender in franchise history.