Ilya Sorokin is finally “NHL bound,” as of Tuesday, a journey the Islanders have anticipated since drafting the goalie in the third round in 2014.
It’s unclear when Sorokin will get to practice with his new team, or whether he will join the Islanders on Long Island or report directly to Toronto to quarantine, with the latter being more likely. He’s ineligible to play the rest of this season after signing a one-year, entry-level deal but he’s already also agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract for 2020-21.
Sorokin’s U.S.-based agent, Dan Milstein, posted a photo on his Twitter account on Tuesday of Sorokin and Canadiens’ prospect Alexander Romanov with the caption, “NHL bound!”
“He’s looking forward to the next challenge,” Milstein said in a previous interview with Newsday. “He’s going to be very excited to put on an Islanders’ jersey and be a part of a team with such a deep history.”
But, other than the expectations, there are plenty of unknowns about Sorokin.
He has excelled for CSKA Moscow in the KHL — being named playoff MVP in leading the team to its first Gagarin Cup in 2019 — and competed for Russian squads in the Olympics and World Championships.
That Sorokin’s good friend, national team teammate and KHL rival Igor Shesterkin has taken over as the Rangers’ No. 1 goalie this season has only raised those expectations.
“Ilya Sorokin has consistently risen to, if not exceeded, expectations,” Gillian Kemmerer, a Russian-based KHL reporter and author of “The Faceoff,” wrote in an e-mail to Newsday. “Consider this: CSKA Moscow had not won a postseason title since the fall of the Soviet Union. Thirty years of expectations were layered on that star-studded Red Army team. It’s safe to say that Sorokin stood on his head.
“No one can ever really predict how a player makes the NHL jump given all the pressure that comes with it,” Kemmerer added. “I would expect and hope for him to make a smooth transition similar to his best friend Igor Shesterkin, and the Isles’ organization will need to play a part in that.”
Islanders goalie and fellow Russian Semyon Varlamov said recently one of the biggest keys to making the transition to North America was understanding English.
“Almost every foreign player faces culture shock and a language barrier that presents challenges in and out of the locker room,” Kemmerer said. “Sorokin’s English is the best I have ever encountered among Russian prospects prior to departure.”
Still, that does not mean Sorokin is going to be a chatterbox, at least not publicly.
“He’s a very nice, quiet guy who’s a true professional,” Milstein said. “He puts sports before anything. He’s very outgoing with his friends but you need to get to know him. He’s here to play hockey.”
“Sorokin also has a sly sense of humor, when he feels comfortable enough to speak English with the press,” Kemmerer said. “I asked him once why he became a goalie and he told me — in English — ‘I hate running. And the equipment looks beautiful.’”
Kemmerer is also impressed with Sorokin’s charitable nature.
“I loved popping into the All-Star Game locker room before the skills show to photograph his pads, which had been decorated by sick children at a pediatric institute in Moscow,” Kemmerer said. “He had described his experience at the hospital with such emotion to me only a few days before. The pads were auctioned for a young Kazakh goaltender who was diagnosed with the same cancer as [the Flyers’] Oskar Lindblom. I am devastated to say that he did not make it. But the proceeds went to other children battling cancer. The pride Sorokin felt in those pads was touching and obvious.”
The on-ice scouting report on Sorokin is of an aggressive, incredibly athletic and, at times, acrobatic goalie who likes challenging shooters.
He spent five seasons with CSKA Moscow and won an Olympic gold medal at the 2018 Winter Games in Sochi as he and Shesterkin backed up Vasily Koshechkin.
“I definitely pointed out on a broadcast that the two young goalies were property of New York teams,” said Kenny Albert, who did the television play-by-play of four of the Russian team’s games in the Olympics for NBC Sports. “Before the gold medal game, I spoke for about 20 minutes [with the team’s assistant coach Ilya Vorobiev] and I remember he was very high on both goaltenders. He was talking about how good they were and would be.”