Ilya Samsonov. Igor Shesterkin. Ilya Sorokin. The three uber-talented netminders were drafted within a one-year span from 2014 to 2015 and represent the future of Russian goaltending. It’s hard to mention one without mentioning the other. And now, on the heels of Samsonov and Shesterkin making impressive debuts in 2019-20, it’s Sorokin’s turn to arrive in North America.
Sorokin, 24, signed a one-year contract with the New York Islanders on Monday to finish out 2019-20. He will not be eligible to compete for the Isles in the 24-team play-in tournament, but he can participate in training camp, which opened Monday, if he can sort out his travel visa and COVID-19 quarantine period in time to get there. On Tuesday, the Isles announced a one-year extension for 2020-21 in which Sorokin will earn $2 million.
So who is Sorokin? What will his role be with the Isles in seasons to come? And can we expect an impact similar to that of Samsonov with the Washington Capitals and Shesterkin with the New York Rangers?
The Isles picked Sorokin 78th overall in 2014, making him the eighth goaltender off the board that season. It wasn’t long before Sorokin rose up to post absurd video-game numbers in the KHL, particularly after a 2014 trade sent him to the juggernaut CSKA Moscow. Though parity in the KHL has been questionable year to year, with a handful stacked squads dominating, Sorokin’s numbers since he joined the team in 2015-16 look like cheat-code work:
And his post-season play was just as jaw-droppingly great:
He was named the KHL’s best goaltender in 2015-16. He won the Gagarin Cup as league champ and the playoff MVP in 2018-19. Sorokin, then, had little left to accomplish in his home nation by summer 2019.
In the Hockey News’ Future Watch 2015, our first edition after Sorokin’s draft year, he was ranked as the Isles’ No. 6 prospect, which was fairly standard for a teenage goaltender. Over the years, he jumped to fourth, then third, then second, then third and, by 2020, first. Our panel of active scouts and NHL team executives first placed Sorokin among the top 100 team-affiliated prospects overall in 2017, when he ranked 61st. He then jumped to 39th, then 41st and, by this season, 22nd overall. Our panel currently ranks Sorokin as the sport’s No. 3 goalie prospect, trailing only Shesterkin (third overall) and Spencer Knight (fifth).
Sorokin’s best traits are his elite athleticism, quickness and reflexes, which help him as a positional goalie because he can usually be in the right place at the right time. They’re important tools to have in the belt because he’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 167 pounds (176 according to the KHL), meaning he’s not exactly a net filler in the mold of Ben Bishop or Robin Lehner. On top of his raw skills and already impressive list of accolades, Sorokin will have access to one of the NHL’s best goalie coaching trees. Overseeing things as the director of goaltending is Mitch Korn, who has shepherded many breakout stars over the course of his career, from Dominik Hasek to Pekka Rinne to Braden Holtby to Lehner. Holding the official job as goaltending coach is the underappreciated Piero Greco. When you look at the work Korn and Greco have done and consider that they’re getting such a high-ceiling prospect to work with in Sorokin, it’s exciting to imagine what the result will be. A then-struggling talent in Lehner and a career backup in Greiss combined to be arguably the NHL’s best netminding duo last season. What can Korn and Greco do with a piece of clay of Sorokin's caliber?
We’ll find out soon. It wasn’t too difficult to read the tea leaves last summer when the Isles and GM Lou Lamoriello stepped away from Lehner and signed veteran Semyon Varlamov to a four-year pact. With 2019-20 being the final year of Greiss’ contract, it was clear the Islanders were hoping to pair Varlamov with Sorokin. As a fellow Russian, Varlamov can ease the transition as a battery mate who speaks the same language. The two are already friends, and Varlamov has called Sorokin the best goaltender in the KHL. Perhaps they’ll share the crease evenly next season, but it’s only a matter of time before Sorokin takes over, and he’ll have every chance to do so as a rookie.
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