As Islanders solidify goaltending, rivals opt for improvements elsewhere

It was unquestionably one of the most exciting moments of the Islanders’ regular season. Ilya Sorokin made a deft poke-check in overtime, Brock Nelson alertly charged and gathered in the loose puck, and, after a simple deke, Nelson fired it past Tristan Jarry to give the Islanders a vital 4-3 come-from-behind victory in early March against a team, the Penguins, that they were battling with neck-and-neck for a playoff berth.

The victory secured a season sweep for the Islanders against the Penguins, a first in franchise history. In four head-to-head meetings the Islanders outscored Pittsburgh 18-10, all of the wins coming after Christmas.

Goaltending was the probably biggest reason for their prosperity against Pittsburgh. Sorokin, a Vezina Trophy finalist, finished with 137 saves on 147 Penguins shots, starting and winning all four games with a .932 save percentage. Jarry, meanwhile, lost three of the four games, while Casey DeSmith was in net for the other. The pair allowed 17 goals on 129 Islanders shots for a combined save percentage of just .868.

Will it be more of the same next season? It’s entirely possible that if the Islanders are going to make the playoffs again, they’re going to have to find a way to finish ahead of the Penguins.

And that might have just gotten much more difficult.

The Penguins interrupted the NHL’s sleepy season last week when they acquired future Hall of Fame defenseman Erik Karlsson from the Sharks on Sunday, bringing the reigning Norris Trophy winner — who posted 101 points in 82 games last season, the first defenseman to hit triple digits in scoring since Brian Leetch in 1991-92 — to Pittsburgh. At the same time, the Penguins shipped some of their more problematic contracts out of town.

So, yeah, the Penguins should be better next season, as, under new general manager Kyle Dubas, they have been as aggressive as any team over the past few months after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when Sidney Crosby was still a teenager.

But the Penguins’ offseason also highlights how differently they view the way the league is going when compared to the Islanders. Sure, Dubas and Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello are known to have a close relationship despite their half-century age gap, but their philosophies on how to build a winning roster are evidently pretty different.

After all, arguably the biggest reason the Penguins missed the playoffs wasn’t because they had poor depth, and it wasn’t because of their widely-panned trade deadline moves. They simply didn’t get enough saves from their goaltending tandem of Jarry and DeSmith when the games were most important. From March 1 through the end of the regular season, the Penguins’ team save percentage at five-on-five was .905, 20th in the league. A few more saves at key times, and they leapfrog both the seventh-place Islanders and eighth-place Panthers in the tightly packed Eastern Conference standings.

What Dubas seems to be banking on is that with the addition of Karlsson, and the change in personnel in the Penguins’ bottom six, it will matter much less that Jarry — who signed a five-year, $26.9 million extension before he would have become an unrestricted free agent — is probably not one of the league’s elite goalies. Who cares if Jarry, or likely No. 2, Alex Nedeljkovic, who couldn’t even stick with the Red Wings last season and spent most of his time with AHL Grand Rapids, lets in a bad goal from time to time, when the offense is pouring it on at the other end?

Maybe it will work. Or, maybe it will be their undoing. But Pittsburgh faithful ought to wait and see how that still-important aspect of their team holds up before petitioning City Hall for a statue of Dubas in front of PPG Paints Arena.

It’s probably safe to assume that if Lamoriello had been in charge of the Penguins this summer, he would have done something about that goalie tandem before pursuing a guy like EK65, even with the 33-year-old defenseman’s ability to create from the back end. He reminded everyone just how important he views that position by signing Sorokin to an eight-year, $66 million extension that begins in 2024-25, while also retaining more-than-capable backup Semyon Varlamov on a four-year, $11 million deal.

And, whether Karlsson can replicate the kind of season he had in 2022-23 with the Sharks is no sure thing. One NHL coach I spoke with in March pointed out that Karlsson was having “a great offensive year, but it’s because he’s playing street hockey. He’s a one-man show.”

That’s not going to be the case in Pittsburgh, as Karlsson will be surrounded by much more talent than he was in San Jose, which had the NHL’s fourth-worst record. Not only is he going to have to stay healthy, a risk considering his history, but he’s going to have to alter his style a bit considering some of the guys who are now his teammates. That was something he struggled with at times when he first arrived in San Jose when they were still a competitive team, while rubbing some of his new teammates the wrong way with his approach, too.

It’s not just the Penguins, though, that don’t seem to be putting much of a premium on goaltending. Another Metropolitan Division team that figures to be in the mix for a playoff spot, and is indeed one of the top-two favorites to win the division, also hasn’t done anything yet to shore up that position.

The Devils, by most accounts, have had a brilliant offseason. They re-signed Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt, acquired Tyler Toffoli, and bolstered their overall depth with other peripheral moves. They lost puck-mover Damon Severson, but expect Luke Hughes to take on most of those minutes as an offensive, mobile guy that could be ready to take the next step.

But in goal, the names are the same  — Vitek Vanacek and Akira Schmid. It’s anyone’s guess which of them it will be on opening night, or who will get the bulk of the work in a season in which the Devils believe they can compete for a Stanley Cup.

Even the Blue Jackets, one of the most disappointing teams in the league last season, focused more on improving the players in front of their goaltenders rather than the goaltenders themselves. Along with Severson, Ivan Provorov was acquired from Philadelphia to provide more dynamic play with the puck from the defense group, rookie and third overall pick Adam Fantilli will likely make the team out of camp, while new coach Mike Babcock will be attempting to redeem himself after a disastrous end in Toronto. Can they get into the mix, too?

Of course, there are only so many goalies to go around. Perhaps these teams, and a few others, tried without success to acquire someone more reliable. Anaheim’s John Gibson is one goalie that could end up switching sweaters at some point, and even though some of his recent numbers don’t look so great while playing for an often lousy Ducks team, he could still potentially help a contender. Maybe he’ll even end up in the Metropolitan Division before the trade deadline.

It used to be said that in the NHL, offense wins games but goaltending wins championships. That may not be the case anymore, particularly considering the last two teams that have won the Stanley Cup.

But it’s still harder to win games when you’re outplayed in goal, as the Penguins found out in their games with the Islanders last season. Just how much harder, well, we’ll likely get an even better sense of that when they meet again.

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