In the five months since opening night, Nabokov has emerged as one of the team's stars as he continues to guide this young group—hopefully—into the playoffs.
And it might not be giving him enough credit to say that the main reason the Islanders have an outside shot at the postseason is because of his play between the pipes.
Aside from the emergence of center John Tavares as an NHL superstar, Nabokov’s resurgence in net has been the most important factor in Islanders wins this year. Without his steadying presence in net, the Islanders would have likely given up on their playoff push months ago.
As it stands, the Isles are still hanging around in the race for the Eastern Conference’s all-important eighth seed and the playoff berth that comes with it.
When Nabokov refused to report to Uniondale to play for the Islanders last season after the team claimed him on waivers, no one on the island—with the possible exception of Isles GM Garth Snow—thought that he would eventually become the team’s most consistent goaltender the following year.
As unlikely a storyline as it is, Nabby has gone from drawing the ire of the Isles faithful to being an object of praise on Long Island in a relatively short time. That being the case, the Islanders front office needs to make a push to re-sign the veteran netminder—if not before the end of this season, then as soon as possible after the Isles play their final game.
Nabokov provides veteran leadership at a crucial position. Islanders fans know all too well what it’s like to have inconsistent goaltending, as the Rick DiPietro saga again reared its ugly head earlier this year. And despite Nabokov’s age—he’ll be 37 in July—he’s been relatively dependable.
Sure, he’s endured his share of injuries this season but they haven’t been serious enough to impact the quality of his play when he’s on the ice.
The Islanders rely on a player of Nabokov’s stature to a higher degree than most teams would; as one of the NHL’s youngest teams, a veteran presence in goal should not be overlooked.
And with relatively young and inexperienced defensemen like Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald, Dylan Reese, Aaron Ness and Calvin de Haan slated to be on the blue line in the years to come, a security blanket like Nabokov would be a solid investment for another season or two.
It’s no secret that the Islanders struggle to score goals, so having a goalie that can keep the team in games is essential. All season long, Nabokov has played behind a team ranked 28th in goals per game at 2.3—without a steady hand in net, the Isles would have far more blowout losses on their resumé.
That’s not to say that Nabokov’s play is only good enough to keep games close. On several occasions, it’s been his standout play that’s won games for the Islanders.
Fans need only to look as far as his performance against the New York Rangers on Feb. 24—a 4-3 victory over the team’s arch-rival that saw Nabokov stop the Rangers’ John Mitchell in a shootout to seal the win.
Nabby is tied for 13th in the league with a .920 save percentage and is 16th among NHL goalies with a 2.41 goals-against average—impressive numbers considering that the Islanders have been flirting with a .500 record seemingly all season.
What makes sense in net for the Islanders at this point in their rebuild is a stopgap—a bridge to the future. Nabokov obviously isn’t the long-term answer to the team’s goalie question, but he can hold the fort until the organization’s glut of goaltending prospects is NHL-ready.
The entire league saw the future of Islanders goaltending when Anders Nilsson posted a 1-0 shutout win over the New Jersey Devils for his first career NHL victory—this coming on the heels of his being named the AHL’s goaltender of the month while going 10-0-1 for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in January and February.
Along with Nilsson, Isles goaltending prospect Kevin Poulin has made a few appearances at the NHL level this season. Suffice it to say that the Isles have plenty of willing and able goalies waiting in the wings.
But the inexperience of Nilsson and Poulin, and the questions surrounding former starting goalie Al Montoya—he hasn’t seemed right since returning from the concussion he suffered in December—Nabokov seems like the best option for a team that doesn’t want to press any of its prospects into NHL action too early.
As much as Islanders fans want to see the talent that’s being grown in Bridgeport, Nilsson and Poulin can certainly benefit from another season on the farm. Relying on either of them as the starting goaltender in 2012-13 won’t do the team—or the goalies—any good.
If nothing else, re-signing Nabby gives the Isles the opportunity to bring up a rookie to learn under the veteran netminder next season as he shares goaltending duties with the former All-Star.
The NHL isn’t like the NFL, where the rookie has to stand back and hold the clipboard—if Nilsson or Poulin is called up for an extended period of time next year, having Nabokov around can only help their development as they adjust to a longer, more grueling season.
As this season winds down, the Isles front office needs to make getting Nabokov under contract a top priority.
Snow and team owner Charles Wang don’t need to break the bank or give him a three-plus year deal, but they should realize the importance of bringing Nabby back for another year or two.
Now that Nabokov has expressed interest in remaining on Long Island, it makes sense that all parties involved should move towards finalizing a contract that will keep him in blue and orange—the perfect short-term solution with potential long-term rewards.