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Evgeni Nabokov and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a marriage?

Posted Dec 14, 2010 by Erik Erlendsson

Updated Dec 15, 2010 at 01:16 AM

Lots of chatter around the past couple of days regarding goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nabokov, a former Calder Trophy winner as the rookie of the year, spent his entire career with the San Jose Sharks until this summer when as an unrestricted free agent he had no substantial offers from NHL teams. So he left to go play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, signing a four-year deal with St. Petersburg. But three months into that venture, Nabokov and St. Petersburg mutually agreed to terminate his contract after he started the season 8-8-5 with a 3.02 goals against average and .888 save percentage. The reason for the termination of the contract reportedly is for family reasons, and there are some reports out there which suggest his family has already left Russia.

Now, Nabokov is a free agent and there has been contact between Nabokov’s agent, Don Meehan, and the Lightning, and for obvious reasons. Meehan reached out to Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman letting him know that Nabokov is available and on the market. Now, Nabokov is an upper-tier netminder with a career record of 293-178-66 with a 2.39 goals against average and .912 save percentage in 563 career games, all with San Jose. He has won 40 games each of his last seasons with San Jose. And despite the Sharks’ playoff failures, Nabokov has solid postseason numbers, 40-38 with a 2.29 goals against and .913 save percentage, although the Sharks advance to the Western Conference finals only twice (2004 and 2010).

So, if you are Steve Yzerman, is there a match to be made here?

Meehan thinks so, as the Lightning were one of the first teams he called. And for good reason, since Tampa Bay goaltenders Dan Ellis and Mike Smith just have not got the job done, ranked 44th and 45th, respectively, out of 45 goaltenders in save percentage and 41st and 43rd, respectively, in goals against average. Yet somehow Tampa Bay has stayed in a playoff position for most of the season, so the logical thought process leads to - - - - a quality goaltender would make this team a playoff lock, correct?

In a simple world, this would be a no-brainer, but this is not a simple NHL.

There’s a couple of things at play here that might make this a difficult proposition, assuming Yzerman even has interest in signing Nabokov.

First - Nabokov is now 35-years-old which means if there is any thought in signing him to a multi-year contract, he counts against the salary cap even, as Jay Feaster used to say, if he gets hit by a bus walking out the door after signing the deal. So there is a risk in signing him to a contract of more than one year, and you have to have to consider Nabokov’s poor Olympic showing - which Yzerman had an up-close view of - and his poor showing in Russia, although it is a much different league over there compared to the NHL, so that might be able to be overlooked.

Second - Let’s say Yzerman does want to sign Nabokov, and actually puts pen to paper on a deal. Because Nabokov played in a European-based league this season, after signing a deal with an NHL team he would have to clear waivers. And should that happen, let’s say you are Washington general manager George McPhee, who has two young goaltenders in Semyon Varlamov and Michael Nuevirth minding net for a team many consider a Stanley Cup contender. If you believe the Lightning are a serious threat in the division with a higher quality goaltender, do you let them keep Nabokov, or do you snatch him on waivers, boosting your own club while also putting some a crimp in Tampa Bay’s plan? Or what about another team in the playoff chase with Tampa Bay this season? Do you let Nabokov pass through? That makes this scenario a tricky proposition, even if Yzerman wants to sign him.

Third - How much is Nabokov going to be looking for in a new deal in the NHL? Does he come in looking for $4 million plus? He made $6 million last year in San Jose, so a deal in the $4 million range is certainly not an astronomical thought. Sure, Tampa Bay has plenty of cap space this season, but what about next year when Steven Stamkos’ new contract kicks in at what could be $4-$5 million more than his cap hit this season of over $3 million (on an entry level contract including potential bonuses). While I’m sure that if Yzerman went to owner Jeff Vinik and suggested Nabokov was the missing piece and worth the money, Vinik would almost certainly approve the move. But is this team, which was supposed to have a patient approach, ready to make that leap and bring in a big-ticket goaltender right now? My guess is no.

Lastly - Going back to the patience factor with the building process, I just don’t see this organization as it sits right now willing to go out and throw money around on a goaltender this year. Not with a potential free agent market next season that could include Tomas Vokoun, J-S Gigure, Ilya Bryzgalov, Antii Niemi, Jimmy Howard and Craig Anderson. It’s a buyers market next summer, when Smith’s contract will be up freeing up some money.

If neither Smith nor Ellis find a way to turn it around this season, then there are other short-term stopgaps to find, such as New York Islanders veteran Dwayne Roloson, who has played well in front of an awful Islanders team. I would think he is savvy enough to handle the situation and Tampa, and he might like facing just 28-28 shots a night as the Lightning are giving up this season. Heck, even Johan Hedberg, sitting as a backup on another awful team this season, New Jersey, could be brought in as an upgrade. And both of these guys don’t make much in terms of salary this season ($2.5 million for Roloson and $1.5 million for Hedberg) and neither would cost much in terms of assets for the organization to give up, while both becoming free agents next season and thereby off the books.

So to sum this all up, Nabokov is an intriguing figure to consider. He would help right now, there is little doubt in that thought process, but at what cost? And because of that cost, I can’t see Tampa Bay signing him to a deal. In fact, about the only way I can see the Lightning adding Nabokov is if another team signs him and Tampa Bay picks him up on waivers, assuming the price is right.

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