Looking Forward for the San Jose Net

Nabby is out. It is all but official. Yesterday, it was about Nabokov, as I took the time to lament and to thank Nabokov for almost a decade of service in the Sharks net. Today, though, it is time to move on. The Sharks now have a major question mark at the goaltender position, and the only answer that we have so far is that the situation will be different than it was last year. Let us take a look at the possibilities as to what Doug Wilson and Co can do to fill that void going into the 2010-2011 season.

Promote from Within

The Sharks have a couple of goaltenders under contract that could be considered close to NHL ready. If the decision to let Nabokov go is purely a cap related one, this could be the best option. That leaves…

Thomas Greiss

Greiss was the backup in San Jose to Nabokov last year, and put up very respectable numbers (.912 save percentage, 2.69 GAA) when given the opportunity. He didn’t come in to the organization as any sort of heir to Nabby, though, and despite his passable performance, he is unlikely to be a long term solution.

Alex Stalock

If the Sharks are going to keep the goaltender job in the organization, as opposed to looking to aquire a goaltender, Greiss is more likely to take over the gig next year, having spent a season in the NHL already, but Stalock is more likely to be the so called ‘goalie of the future.’ He is regarded as the best prospect at that postion to come through since the passing of Warren Stralow, who mentored Nabokov, as well as NHL starters Vesa Toskala, Mikka Kipprusoff, and Johan Hedberg (all of whom came through the Sharks minor league system). Reports are good (aggressive and athletic but could be more consistent, a bit like Nabokov in that regard, but better with the puck, to the tune of ‘possibly the best puck playing goalie in the pros’ according to one source), although it is nerve racking, potentially handing over the net to a guy who had a losing record (39-44) in his college career.

UFA- Bridge

Should the Sharks decide that what they have in the arsenal isn’t ready, and that they need to bring in a goalie from another organization, there are a number of ways that they could go about that. The first option, would to be to sign a veteran UFA, who would serve as a bridge between Nabokov, and the next prospect that they think is ready to take over, likely Stalock. There are a few guys on the market who would seem to fit this bill, as goalies who have been established in the NHL, can help the Sharks win next year (and they are built at every other position to do so), but aren’t going to be around for that long.

Marty Turco

Outside of Nabokov (and possibly including him), Turco has to be the most established name amongst the free agent goaltenders. He is 34 years old, so he likely has a few seasons left, and his numbers, although not quite as good as they were at his prime, haven’t slipped that much. They are a little bit lower, but then again, he no longer has the D core in front of him that he did when he put up a .932 save percentage with a 1.72 GAA in 2003. With Kari Lehtonin in the wings, Turoco is unlikely to go back to Dallas, meaning the biggest issue with Turco (assuming he would want to come to San Jose), would be a possible high price tag.

Chris Mason

Mason has put up good numbers, and quietly, the last few years in St. Louis and Nashville. Playing in the forgotten southern half of the central, though, he hasn’t gotten much attention (although he did get enough to make team Canada for the 2006 and 2009 world championships). The 33 year old is not going to sell any tickets, but he would be a viable option between now and when Stalock/Greiss/prospect X is ready to take over, giving the Sharks a chance to win right away.

Jose Theodore

Probably the most forgettable player ever to win an MVP, Theodore hasn’t been able to recreate what he had for a while in Montreal in Colorado or Washington. This could actually make him more attractive for San Jose, though, since his diminished performance will likely lead to a substantial pay cut for the French-Canadian.

UFA- Future

There are a couple of guys available that could potentially take the reigns for a number of years in San Jose. It would probably mean that they don’t have as much cap room as they would like this summer, but the Sharks could potentially find a stopper for the next 5 or 6 years in this free agent class. On the other hand, there is a reason that they are UFAs before or during their prime in a league where Rick DiPietro has got a 15 year contract, so any of these guys would be a risk at best, or a below average solution at worst.

Ray Emery

Wait! Come back! I’m serious. It makes me as nervous as anyone, but he might actually be my favorite of the UFA goalies this year. The best argument for Emery can be summed up in two sentences. He has shown flashes of being a good NHL goaltender (he went 56 and 27 over a 2 year span in Ottawa, and took the Sens to the cup finals in 2007), and has been to the playoffs before. He will only be 28 when the season begins. Of course, the case against him is just as simple: He was banished to the KHL last year, and got in a fight with his coach while he was there. He might be certifiably insane. Still, he is an intriguing option, and even though I am surprised to hear myself say it, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Sharks take that risk.

Michael Leighton

Like Emery, there pros and cons are pretty quick for Emery. He got the Flyers to the cup finals last year. He also probably isn’t that good. His tag also might be a bit higher, coming off of a deep playoff run. Not, in my opinion, actually a viable option.

Dan Ellis

Ellis is likely (read, definitely) going to join the aforementioned Chris mason as a former Nashville Predators goalie with Pekka Rinne playing well over the past couple of years. Ellis is solid, but not exciting, and he isn’t exactly young. I don’t think that the Sharks would shell out too much, going after a guy who was the clear number 2 on a team that finished 6 spots below them, but he would be a good option at the right price.

The Swoop

Having gone through the list of UFA goaltenders, the fact is that if San Jose wants to pick up a viable long term goalie, they probably aren’t going to do it through free agency. Reading over that list, only Turco is a guy that you can get excited about for the next couple of years, but if the Sharks wanted an aging, potentially high paid goaltender, they would probably stick with Nabokov (having said that, I personally wouldn’t mind seeing Turco, but that is just the realistic breakdown, unless Turco signs for cheap). That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to swing a trade, though, if they are going to go outside of the organization. In addition to those UFAs, there are a few goaltenders with restricted free agent status. That means that their team would have a chance to match an offer, but it could be done in some cases, where teams are up against the cap (it would also mean giving up a draft pick, but that is a small price to pay if the Sharks think that this is a way to find the right match.

(When looking at these, it is important to remember that the Sharks aren’t going to be throwing around 6 million dollar offers. For instance, Carey Price is a RFA, but with the Canadiens having just given up Halak, any offer that the Sharks would give Price would almost certainly be met by the Habs, and therefore isn’t even worth mentioning.)

Antti Niemi

Easily the most intriguing possibility. The Blackhawks, even having shipped off Sopel and Byfugdlein, by the looks of it, are completely handcuffed as far as the salary cap is conserned. It seems absurd that they wouldn’t match an offer to bring back the guy who just brought them to a cup, but the simple fact of the matter is they may not have a choice. If a team offered Niemi something in the 4-5 million range, they would have almost no choice but to let him walk. I don’t know if the Sharks are the team to do this, but I could certainly see it, and would prefer it to a roll of the dice with Stalock or Greiss.

Josh Harding

Harding is one of the better backups in the league, and with Niklas Backstrom firmly entrenched as the starter for the Wild, he could be pried away for a much more reasonable price than most RFAs. It is a risky proposition, shelling out RFA money for a guy who has never been a starter, though.

Jaroslav Halak

Probably falls into the same category as Carey Price, as mentioned above, but god, would I love to see it. I have to mention it as a dream scenario, but it isn’t a very viable situation. It would be too big a gaffe for the Blues to give something up for his rights, then fail to sign him.

Trade

It is worth mentioning on the grounds that, well, I guess you never know. Realistically, I don’t see this happening. Teams with two viable goaltenders are unlikely to trade one with a contract that the Sharks would want to take on. Just for fun, though, here are the guys who would be on the block if the Sharks were to test that particular set of waters.

Tim Thomas

Tuukka Rask is clearly the guy in Boston going forward, which leaves Thomas as a candidate to be dealt. This would be great, except that his 5 million is probably more than the Sharks want to take on, and, you know, Boston is never going to want to trade with San Jose again, the way the last one worked out (Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau!). Almost no way this happens, even if it looks logical at first glance.

Peter Budaj

Cheap? Yes, at 1.25 million. Established? Yeah, he has played in almost 200 NHL games, despite only being 27 years old. Availible? Definitely, after the way Anderson played in round 1. The big question though, is he good? I’m not so sure. Wilson would need to be, since after all, they would need to give something up to get him, even though he is going into a contact year.

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(Thanks to http://www.hockeybuzz.com, http://www.sportscity.com, and Matt Greason for info used in this column)

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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3PMdKgh7Ic]

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.


[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13FnJwlUCcg]


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.