Thursday, March 22, 2012

Nabokov Finds Life with the Isles Worth Another Try

By Larry Wigge

When good goaltending has been a concern to your franchise for a long, long time and a solid netminder becomes available you pounce on him.

Such has been the case with the New York Islanders. The Rich DiPietro experiment has been a disaster. You would have to go back as far as the Stanley Cup years when Billy Smith and Chico Resch were around to find a No. 1 and No. 2 combination of note.

Oh, sure they had Kelly Hrudey, Rollie Melanson and a young Roberto Luongo (who would look good there now), but ...

On January 20, the Detroit Red Wings signed Evgeni Nabokov -- who had to clear waivers as a part of return from St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. Two days later, GM Garth Snow claimed Nabokov, after his 22-game excursion in the KHL.

Snow, a former goalie as was Detroit GM Ken Holland, was trying to fill a longstanding need -- and doing it under the rules. He was hoping for some of the Nabokov magic immediately. Some of the same thing he saw in the veteran during his 10-year reign with the San Jose Sharks.

At first, Nabby saw the claim as his chance to play with the contending Red Wings. But he wasn't going to circumvent the waiver wire procedures, so he was suspended by the Islanders.

"I understand the rules," said Nabokov, who signed a one-year, $570,000 deal with the Wings. "We're not stupid, we knew what was going on before we made the decision. But I made this decision because the goal was to play with Detroit."

Nabokov changed his mind. It was his choice, if he wanted to play in the NHL. He learned to live with the Isles -- and succeeded. 

"We had a great meeting in the spring," said Snow, "ironed out all the differences."

A year later, the 36-year-old netminder from Ust-Kamenogorsk, Russia, had a 2.56 goals-against average in 40 games for a .912 save percentage.

And Nabokov signed a new contract with the Islanders for $2.75 million for 2012-13 season.

"Nabby's been terrific. He's taken the ball and run with it," Snow explained. "He's back to his old form. He can still play at an elite level in the NHL. He been one of the plusses on our team, a veteran working with our young players."

"I'm thrilled to commit to this team for next season," Nabokov said. "We have a great group in the locker room of young, talented players and we're heading in the right direction."

Nabokov saw his situation as tolerable. In turn, it turned out better -- for himself and the Islanders.

There's no masking the obvious. You could say this quiet, proud goaltender had seen his life turned upside down, in fact.

After seeing Nabokov record 46, 41 and 44 victories for San Jose, you could sense some slight by the Sharks from dropping him in favor of Antti Niemi, who had won the Stanley Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks. Evgeni had not had the same success in the playoffs.

Make not mistake about it, Nabokov was exceptional in the 2007-08 season, when he played in 77 games and had a 46-21-8 record, with six shutouts and 2.14 goals-against average.

I asked star center Joe Thornton what's been the difference with Nabokov. His response: "I don't ask why. All I know is that Nabby is giving us a chance to win every night."

No one will doubt that goaltending, more precisely goaltenders, are the mysteries of the universe. The tendency is to immediately dismiss the difficulty of the job and say that goaltenders in hockey are different, weird, crazy, because they live in a bigger fishbowl than most athletes. They live in a giant-sized shooting gallery – often facing shots in excess of 100 mph, or wrestling with and fighting off 200-pound power forwards who insist on screening and deflecting shots at the net to make life even more miserable for the men behind the mask.

Make not mistake about it, Nabokov was (and is) crazy ... crazy good.

If you spend 10 minutes or so with him, you learn that he's a quiet, yet funny, family man. He loves Russian hip-hop music, likes the modern classic movies like The Godfather, Wedding Crashers and Analyze This. But there's nothing more important to him than spending time with his wife, Tabitha, and kids, Emily and Andrei.

"I always have time for my family," he said. "I learned that from my parents. My dad (Viktor) was a pretty good goaltender and my mom (Tatyana) worked as an engineer at a factory. But they always had time for me."

Nabby learned his trade at a very early age from his dad, Viktor.

"He played for 18 seasons in Russia and Kazakhstan," Nabokov said. "We all watched and idolized Vladislav Tretiak, but I admired my dad for what he taught me about life. There was little TV in Russia back then, but I'll never forget seeing my dad play in his final game, a win, back in 1987. He had to retire early because of so many knee injuries, but I remember seeing him play in that game with so much pride and passion.

"I was lucky to have two goalie coaches in my lifetime -- first my dad and then Warren Strelow. They taught me a lot ... about everything."

Strelow died at 73 in April of 2007.

"Most of the job is mental," Nabokov explained. "It's staying sharp and alert and having the mindset that the most important save is always the next one ... and then being prepared be ready to make that next stop, whether it's a rebound or the next shift."

Those crazy goalies. Nabokov says he still hears Strelow ...

"He's still in my head," Nabokov said, with a whimsical look on his face. "I still hear him and replay visions of things we talked about and did together in the past. I'll make a save or miss one and something that Warren once told me kinds of rewinds in my head.

"It's funny, but when I started to work with him I only spoke Russian and he only spoke English. But he was able to communicate what he wanted me to do with no trouble."

Nabokov still has Strelow's three-step plan taped to his locker back home on Long Island. It reads: 1. Stay Focused. 2. Remember Your Fundamentals. 3. Have Fun.

But there's one more ... 

"He achieved a lot of success in his life, but the one goal he had that he never won was a Stanley Cup," Nabokov said. "I'd like nothing better than to win one for Warren."

Crazy? Not Evgeni Nabokov. Even if he is now playing for the New York Islanders.

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