Note: Nabokov's soreness rules him out against his former teammates tonight -- sounds like Rick DiPietro gets his first start -- but Sharks fans will be pleased to hear he's been fine so far.
It seemed like in the offseason among Islander fans there were many camps over what should be done with the goaltending position. From Al Montoya, Kevin Poulin and even Anders Nilsson supporters all the way to those who thought the Islanders should bid for Tomas Vokoun, there were wildly varying opinions.
Of course in that mix was Evgeni Nabokov, who seemed to be the favored son of the press once his contract was tolled by those mean Islanders who had the nerve to exercise their CBA-given rights.
To hear some media and anonymous clowns tell it, Nabokov should be allowed to waltz his way back to the NHL and a starting goalie job without any consideration for how he bombed out in the KHL or struggled at the WCs. While many of the same pundits tend to hold the KHL at a lower level then the NHL, they ignored Nabokov's struggles. Many of them are quick to point out when an over-30 player might have lost a step, but ignored the struggles of a 35-year-old goalie.
So over the summer I laid down my thoughts on Nabokov and his previous year in hockey and how there wasn't much hope for him this season. So far, although as a few people would say it's a small sample size, I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised. Nabokov doesn't look anything like a goalie who posted sub-.890 save percentages last year. He doesn't look like a goalie who was outplayed in the KHL by Yann Danis.
The only downside so far is that he is just 1-2, but that's out of his control. A goalie who only lets in 2 goals a game is doing his part to win his team the game. At some point the offense has to give him a hand, too.
Mr Nabokov's Wild Ride
I think during the last season Nabokov should have triggered just about every warning flag about an aging player possible:
Holding Out for Money: Nabokov became expendable to the Sharks when he was unwilling to change his contract demands. Unlike other goalies who quickly realized they were overvaluing themselves in the FA market (Marty Turco, Martin Biron) Nabokov eventually signed in the KHL. The $6 million a year salary was roughly the same salary as his final contract with the Sharks.
Mysterious Family Circumstances: That led to his KHL contract being terminated. Plenty of people pointed out that "Family Circumstances" might have been Russian for "Huge Bust."
How Does Waivers Work? The Scenario: Nabokov eventually signs with the Detroit Red Wings at a huge discount, but has to clear waivers. His agent claims he will play for any team that claims him. Riddled by goalie injuries -- even before Kevin Poulin suffers a season ending injury -- Snow (along with a reported five other GMs) puts in a claim for him and gets him. Nabokov not only refuses to report, but apparently hangs up on Snow when he calls him personally. Islander fans stop stabbing their Kirk Muller voodoo dolls and get to work on Nabokov dolls.
Wait, What? In one of the most confusing statements made during the controversy, Nabokov claims that he wouldn't be ready to play for 4-6 weeks. But Detroit needed him to start sooner then that, and as long as Jimmy Howard was healthy the Wings were not going to start Nabokov over him. So it was at the very least a head scratching statement.
World Championships: Unwilling to play for the Islanders, Nabokov started preparing for the World Championships. Of course Snow only learned of this through reporters. Since you can't compete at the WC's unless your parent club allows you, this meant that Nabokov needed Snow and the Islanders OK to compete. Eventually Nabokov and Snow sorted it out, although Nabokov ended up having a bad tourney and leaving with an injury.
I'm not sure if there's ever been a pro-athlete to wreck his reputation quite this quickly, at least short of run-ins with the law. The only way it could have possibly been worse is if in the end Nabokov had fought his contract getting tolled, which he didn't.
Instead, he embraced it.
He hasn't been a problem in the locker room at all, at least not that anyone has reported. With Montoya posting a .930 and Nabokov's .927, the crease so far looks as solid as it has looked in years. The Islanders have never had two goalies finish the season with a save percentage above .910 at the same time. With the D struggling and the East looking as tight and competitive as ever, it might be the difference between playoffs and golfing.
I don't mind being proven wrong at all, especially if it helps the Islanders. Now if only Dylan Reese and Blake Comeau could prove me wrong...