Nabokov embraces a clean sheet of ice
Ross McKeon | NHL.com correspondent Sep 26, 2007, 10:00 AM EDT
With each new season comes renewed energy, heightened expectations and rejuvenated spirit. No one is looking more forward to a fresh start as much as San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
Nabokov had a tough season in 2006-07, both personally and professionally. Off the ice, he endured the lingering sickness and eventual death of popular goaltending coach Warren Strelow in addition to the loss of his father-in-law. On the ice, he was stuck in the unenviable position of alternating with Vesa Toskala for most of the regular season, then experienced another disheartening early ouster from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The birth of his second child and first son may have been the lone bright spot in an otherwise rocky season for the veteran goalie teammates call “Nabby.”
But it’s now time to turn the page. Nabokov says he’ll never erase Strelow from his mind. But Toskala is in Toronto after an offseason trade, meaning Nabokov will probably get 60 starts if healthy and effective. Then there's that matter of achieving previous unfulfilled expectations in San Jose.
"I know clearly right now what my job is," Nabokov says. "It's almost where you can say it's easy, but it's also hard. It's a different phase of my career."
Evgeni Viktorovich Nabokov is now 32 years old. He’s far removed from his hometown of Ust-Kamenogorsk in Kazakhstan, a part of the former Soviet Union when he was a youth — and long distanced from those early days of playing minor-league hockey in Kentucky without knowing a word of English.
Longtime Sharks scouting guru Tim Burke discovered Nabokov on a trip to Russia when he was, in fact, intending to watch someone else. In hindsight, waiting until the ninth round to draft Nabokov in 1994 is not something the Sharks would risk again, but they lucked out.
Nabokov honed his craft with the now defunct Kentucky Thoroughblades of the American Hockey League from 1997-99, and was 20 games into the 1999-2000 season with the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League when he got the call to join the Sharks.
On the first day of the new millennium, Nabokov saw his first NHL action in relief of Steve Shields against Nashville, which greeted the rookie with four breakaways that were all stopped, along with each and every other Predator shot.
Nabokov got his first start 18 nights later in Denver, with Hall of Famer Patrick Roy tending the opposite net. Nabokov matched Roy save for save, turning aside 39 shots — but he had to settle for a 0-0 tie.
The bizarre start to his career continued as Nabokov allowed only one goal on the first 104 shots he faced as an NHL goalie. Yet that still wasn't good enough for him to earn his initial win. The one puck that slipped past? It came off the stick of teammate Stephane Matteau while Nabokov was skating to the bench on a delayed penalty.
He was called "John" in those days, a result of fearing that Americans would have difficulty pronouncing his birth name. To this day, several members of the front office still refer to him as John.
By any name, notice had been served. Nabokov validated his 11-game stint a year later by stepping in for an injured Shields in the second game of the 2001-02 season and didn't surrender the team's No. 1 goaltending status again for five seasons.
Along the way, Nabokov won the Calder Trophy, was a member of the 2000-01 NHL All-Rookie team and appeared in two All-Star Games.
"It was a great start with the awards — rookie of the year and the All-Star Game selections — but last year we had a shot at the fewest goals-against. It would be nice to get that," Sharks assistant GM Wayne Thomas says. "Also, not too many guys enter the Hall of Fame without at least a Stanley Cup, if not a number of Cups. So obviously I hope he does that and I hope it's with us."
Thomas, a former NHL goalie won’t try to fill the shoes of the late Strelow. But he and team scout Cap Raeder, another ex-NHL goalie, will mentor Nabokov as the Sharks have decided to forgo hiring another goaltending coach for the time being.
"I don't have the same relationship — they had a very, very special relationship — but I still know the technical side of it that Warren used to talk about, and the little keys he needs to stay on top of to be at the top of his game," Thomas says.
Nabokov credits his father, Victor Nabokov — a standout pro goalie for 18 years in Kazakhstan — and Strelow for virtually all of his development. While the senior Nabokov lives abroad and sees his son in person only a couple times a season at most, Strelow was Nabokov's surrogate father almost, both on and off the ice.
"I was with him when I had no language going on, nothing," Nabokov says of Strelow. "He was there, he was so patient with me, too. He always would explain stuff. That's why he will always be so special. He would always tell me to stop thinking. And that's what it always comes down to. Just go and play well. Stop making things complicated."
Sharing the net with Toskala last season was more of a mental challenge than anything physical Nabokov had to endure. Toskala earned the right to half of the net by stepping in late in 2005-06, when Nabokov was unable to play through an injury, and carried the team into the postseason.
Although Nabokov had started San Jose’s 30 previous playoff games, Toskala retained the No. 1 job in the 2006 postseason and started each of the Sharks' 11 games. The two alternated most of 2006-07 until Toskala suffered a nagging groin injury about two-thirds of the way through the season.
But Nabokov was brilliant when given the opportunity for extended play. That opened the door for GM Doug Wilson to deal Toskala to Toronto and set the stage for a clear No. 1-2 goaltending combination with Nabokov starting this season and one of two rookies — Dimitri Patzold or Thomas Greiss — backing him up.
"Nabby deserves to be No. 1," Wilson says. "He is, to me, one of the top five goalies in this League. It's a decision we're very comfortable with. He's just coming into his prime. I feel very comfortable with our goaltending for a long time."
You won't catch Nabokov getting comfortable, however — he feels complacency can only lead to bad things.
"When you feel comfortable, that's when you're going to find yourself in trouble," says Nabokov, who became the first goalie in NHL history to score a power-play goal in March 2002 at Vancouver. "To me, I have to compete with myself. I have to compete every game, and I have to be ready. If you're doing your best, you're probably going to be in. If I were to relax a little bit, change can come real quick."
His teammates have complete faith in Nabokov, the franchise leader in virtually every significant goaltending category, including games (353), victories (162) and shutouts (34).
"It gives you confidence, especially with a young defense that we have here now," veteran forward Mike Grier said. "The forwards like to play an up-tempo game, and it gives you confidence that if you make a mistake or turn the puck over that the goalie is going to be back there to bail you out."
"I think he's one of the best goalies in the league," Sharks defenseman Christian Ehrhoff added. "He's very calm. He doesn't move much, he's not a goalie who will go down all the time. He can make saves and make it look real easy."
Wah, Nabby talking about Strelow made me tear up.