Heading into this season, both professional writers and fans keep up the mantra that with Evgeni Nabokov in net the Islanders are going to be better. That finally the Islanders fans prayers for goaltending consistency are answered. It seems to ignore the reality of how Nabokov became an Islander. Nabokov took the money and ran to the KHL when it was apparent no one was going to overpay for a mid-30s goaltender who had average numbers at best. Nabokov then flamed out and came back to America, suddenly willing to take a pay cut to play with a contender. We all know how that worked out.
It's plain and simple, people are ignoring even the simplest stats that point to it just about being over for Nabokov. It's actually not a new story limited to his recent struggles in the KHL and at the World Championships. I can't blame those Shark fans who were eager to see him go. Not just for his playoff struggles, but his questionable level of play in the regular season too. The Sharks have been one of the elite teams in the league for a few years now, and it looks like they might have helped Nabokov more then he helped them.
A Tale of Two Nabokovs
Interestingly Nabokov got a chance with the Sharks because they wanted to keep from rushing blue chip prospect Miikka Kiprusoff. Another name that enters the scene is Vesa Toskala. All three players early careers intertwine until 03-04 (Kiprusoff traded) and 06-07 (Toskala traded). From 00-01 to 03-04 (basically pre-lockout) Nabokov puts up a .915 (00-01), .918 (01-02), .906 (02-03) and .921 (03-04) (RFA contract year) save percentages in order. Miikka meanwhile had a .915 (01-02) and a .879 (02-03). Toskala put up a .927 (02-03), .930 (03-04), .901 (05-06) .908 (06-07).
The Two Nabokovs? He was obviously putting up better numbers before the season canceled by the lockout. While 3 of 4 seasons pre-lockout his SV% was .915 or better, he only managed one .915 SV% or better season post lockout. He's also only had 2 seasons in which he had a .920 SV% or better, both of them before he became a free agent. It's pretty obvious that two things make Nabokov thrive, money or competition.
The KHL and The 2011 World Cup
So it shouldn't be too surprising to find out that in the KHL last year, as the starter and making an incredible amount of money on a 4 year contract didn't work out too well. Nabokov finished 45th out of 57 KHL goalies last year in SV%. It wasn't just the team, Jakub Stepanek who took over for Nabokov had a .923 SV% and Maxim Sokolov who took over the backup role had a .904 SV% compared to Nabokov's .888.
As bad as that might look, it's even worse when you consider some of the other goalies who had a better SV% in the KHL last season. Erik Ersberg who was last seen backing up our favorite brother in law was .001 behind the league leader in SV%. The legendary 45 year old Dominik Hasek had a .915 SV%. Yann Danis playing in his first KHL season had a .910 SV%. Steve Valiquette and Robert Esche both had an .897 SV%. Scott Munroe had a .896 SV%. All of these players had a better season then Nabokov, yet I don't think any sportswriter would proclaim the Islanders goalie situation saved if they had been signed.
This wasn't just a blip on the radar either. In the World Championships Nabokov proceeded to again struggle. His SV% was in the bottom 10 of the tournament. While at least Al Montoya has the excuse that he was hurt, from all reports Nabokov should have been healthy and prepared (the Islanders gave him clearance to practice). His replacement, Konstantin Barulin, managed a .908 SV% in comparison to Nabokov's .880. Reportedly his coach didn't think he could pull Nabokov, and was happy when he went down hurt.
Nabokov is stuck. He burnt all of his bridges in Russia. He can't get out of a contract now in which he's barely making the league minimum. But there's nothing about his play in the last year that says he's going to suddenly turn it around. His .922 SV% was an outlier, quite possibly due to the team more then him. Antti Niemi who replaced him as the full time starter in San Jose managed to post a .920 SV% which was an .008 improvement from his previous year with the Stanley Cup champions.
Nabokov's best years were when he was younger, fighting for a job with Miika and Toskala. At his age, no one will give him more then a one year contract (due to him being 35+) or the big money he's looking for in the NHL. There's nothing to believe that he has any of his old drive to be a full time starter again. Especially not when he's making less then a million dollars this season.
The best bet for the Islanders is to protect him in preseason, giving him easy competition and the better defenseman. Then hope that another team has a goalie go down, or is suddenly desperate for a "starter" while having cap issues. Nabokov's value is much better as a piece that get's us something for the future, than a goalie who will lead us to be competitive now.