Tuesday, June 22, 2010

For the Best: Thank You Evgeni Nabokov

Evgeni Nabokov never quite got the Sharks to where they wanted to be, and it turns out that, barring an extraordinary circumstance, he never will. Despite the fact that it leads this column, though, that shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind when Sharks fans look back at #20’s reign in Silicon Valley.

Nabokov owns the San Jose Sharks goaltending record books. Wins? Check. Games? Check. Shutouts? Check. Goals and Assists? Check. Obviously plenty of this comes down to longevity, but that alone doesn’t explain Nabby’s domination of the Sharks goaltending history. He has been bad at times, but also great at times. Perhaps the biggest shame in the timing of his release is that a good season next year could have catapulted him past Vesa Toskala in GAA (2.34 to Nabby’s 2.37) and save percentage (.914 to .911), for a literal sweep of the Sharks goaltending records. He deserves it.

Obviously, though, he won’t get it. General manager Doug Wilson extended an extraordinary courtesy to the 34 year old net minder and announced that he will hit the unrestricted free agent market on July first, and that he will lace it up for a team other than the San Jose Sharks next season.

It creates a rare circumstance for Sharks fans, one that combines three emotional reactions that seem at first to be at odds with one and other.

The first, obviously, is to be sad to see Nabokov go, and thankful for what he gave to the organization. I have written in negative terms about the Kazak before, and even the archives of this website don’t encapsulate the frustration that his inconsistency had brought. Still, Nabokov was undeniably a great goaltender for the Sharks. His aforementioned numbers speak for themselves, and when he was good, he was great, perhaps even the best in the world.

Almost as importantly, Nabokov was fun to root for. I have said many times that no one made more saves at the hash marks. His super aggressive style was exciting to watch, something that goaltending rarely is. Off the ice, Nabokov was reserved but funny, seemed to be a typical goaltender (quirky), but a genuinely good guy. For what it is worth, he also sounded just enough like Borat for interviews to be consistently funny even when he had nothing to say. Even if his production is replaced, the Sharks will have a tough time filling the quirkiness void that Evgeni Nabokov will leave behind. Over the years, Nabokov had become, with the possible exception of Patrick Marleau, the consummate Shark.

(Before we move on, for the record, here are my top 5 Evgeni Nabokov memories

5. His first goal against: an empty netter as he went to the bench for a delayed penalty. Appropriate for the quirkiest player in hockey.

4. His goal.

3. His first game, against Colorado, in which he got a shutout, but not a win, in a 0-0 tie.

2. Confirming that he was the best goaltender in the world when he was on with Russia in the 2006 Olympics. It wasn't with the Sharks, but it was when I realized just how good Nabby could be.

1. This save on Brad Richards, keeping game 6 of the 2008 series with the Stars going. I still don't know how he got across.

That brings me to the next emotion. As much as I wish I could be upset, letting go of a guy I have rooted for so much, the elephant in the brooding room is that this was almost unquestionably the right thing to do. I am a huge believer that goaltending is extremely overvalued in the NHL. Team defense, particularly from the defensive core is, in my opinion, the most important factor in not allowing goals and winning hockey games. On top of that, it remains to be seen if a cup can be won with a goaltender as streaky as Nabokov. The Sharks are probably better off going in a different direction (especially with Nabokov only having a few years left, realistically), mainly for salary reasons.

The main reason, though, that this is the right thing to do, is that it allows the Sharks to resign Patrick Marleau. Marleau is the San Jose Sharks. I have never had a problem with guys going from team to team like some older fans who will complain about ‘rooting for laundry,’ but Marleau needs to be a Shark. The Sharks need to give raises to guys like Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski, something that would have made it difficult to re-sign the former captain, but with Nabokov’s 5+ million coming off, in addition to Rob Blake’s 3.5, finances won’t be a problem when bringing back number 12. If letting Nabokov walk (helping him out the door, even, from the look of it) means that Marleau is back, as hard as it is, I’ll pour one out for him tonight, and never question if it was right again.

The last emotion that comes to mind is genuine good will. It goes back to the thankfulness, and has the same origins that the sadness comes from. At the end of the day, though, I wish Evgeni Nabokov nothing but the best. Usually when a player moves on, you hope that you cut ties before the wheels come off, and that production dips with the new team. Not with Nabby. I hope it is in the Eastern Conference (Tampa seems like a fit, for what it is worth), but no matter where he goes, I will be rooting for him. I want him to have a career year, and show everyone (myself included) that he wasn’t done after the Olympics this year. That he can put it together for a whole season.

I hope Nabby wins the Vezina next year. I mean that. Just not the cup, because without him, I hat to say it, but I think the Sharks are closer to that one.

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