Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan: NHL Goalie Hotbed

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Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan: NHL Goalie Hotbed
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Vitali Kolesnik

Ust-Kamenogorsk, more commonly known as Oskemen, is a city in eastern Kazakhstan near the Chinese border. It has a population of 288,660 and is home to many mining plants including ones for uranium and zinc. It is also the hometown of five goaltenders that have played in the NHL at some point in their careers.

Kazakhstan has been known for their goaltenders to have a very unorthodox narrow stance. We first noticed this with Evgeni Nabokov when he came into the NHL around the time of the millennium and, over the years, have noticed it among other Kazakh goalies as well.

Evgeni Nabokov or "Nabby" as he is generally called by fans is the greatest hockey player ever to come out of Kazakhstan and was the first Kazakh goaltender to crack the NHL. Although he competes for Russia internationally these days, he played three games for Kazakhstan in the 1994 World Championships (C Pool). In those games, he posted a 2.25 goals-against average and a .857 save percentage. One of those three games was a 0-0 draw against first-place Slovakia where he stood on his head keeping his team in it.

Nabby began his career in 1991-92 as a 16-year-old and played with Kazzinc-Torpedo in his hometown of Ust-Kamenogorsk for three seasons before moving onto Dynamo Moscow. In his first year with Dynamo, his team would win the league championships and Nabby was awarded the Most Valuable Player award. His performance that year led to Evgeni getting drafted in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft (219th overall) by the San Jose Sharks.

Evgeni would play three years in total for Dynamo Moscow before coming to North America and playing for the Sharks AHL affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades. Nabby played in Kentucky until the 1999-2000 season, when he was called up by the San Jose Sharks midway through the season to back up Steve Shields.

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Evgeni Nabokov

Evgeni's first start in the big leagues was very memorable, as he made 39 saves in a scoreless tie against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche. Nabokov would go on to play 10 seasons with the San Jose Sharks and has been considered one of the best goalies in the NHL for many years.

Nabby currently plays with the New York Islanders and last season reached the 300-win mark, which is a very rare feat for goaltenders. Nabby has always played with his classic narrow upright stance, which is a dying breed among goaltenders in this day and age.

 

The next Ust-Kamenogorsk goalie to crack the big leagues was Vitaliy Yeremeyev. He would play four games with the New York Rangers in the 2000-01 season, going 0-4 with a 4.53 GAA and .846 save percentage. Yeremeyev was Nabokov's teammate for the three years with Kazzinc-Torpedo as well as the lone international competition that Nabokov represented Kazakhstan in the 1994 World Championships.

Vitaliy has competed for Kazakhstan more times than any other goalie in the country's history by far. He has competed at two Olympics as well as 10 World Championships. Vitaliy spent parts of three seasons in North America before going to Dynamo Moscow, the team where he would spend the rest of his club career with. Yeremeyev's top international performance came at the 1998 Winter Olympics, where he carried an upstart Kazakhstan team all the way to the quarterfinals where Canada beat them 4-1. Like Nabokov, Yeremeyev also plays an old school standup style with a narrow stance.

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Vitali Kolesnik

We now move onto Vitaly Kolesnik, the Kazakh goalie who spent one memorable year in North America. Vitaly began his career with Kazzinc-Torpedo and spent five years with the club from Ust-Kamenogorsk before being signed as a free agent by the Colorado Avalanche. Vitaly came to North America for the 2005-06 season and spent the first part of the year with Colorado's AHL affiliate, the Lowell Lock Monsters. In Lowell, Vitaly posted a 15-13 record with a 2.80 GAA and .917 save percentage, which was good enough to get an invitation to play in the AHL All-Star Game.

Kolesnik was eventually called up and saw action in eight games for the Avalanche throughout the season. Vitaly went 3-3 in the NHL with a 3.24 GAA and .888 save percentage. In February of that season, Kolesnik got the call to compete for Kazakhstan in the Torino Olympics. Vitaliy got to play in two games (4-1 loss to USA, 2-1 loss to Slovakia), and was the first star for Kazakhstan in both games.

Since that season, Vitaly has been in the KHL and has been one of the league's top goaltenders for the last couple of years. In 2010-11 his team (Salavat Yulaef Ufa) won the Gagarin Cup, which is the KHL's equivalent to the Stanley Cup. If that isn't Vitaly's highlight of his career, then that title belongs to his performance at the 2005 World Championships where Vitaly was Kazakhstan's hero.

Kolesnik posted outrageous numbers on a weak Kazakh team. He was ranked third among goalies with an amazing 1.72 GAA and a .952 save percentage that raised highbrows all over the hockey world. Kolesnik also competed for Kazakhstan at this years World Championships and got some attention for his stellar play in a 3-2 overtime loss to the USA where he made an astonishing 47 saves. For the 2012-13 season, Vitaly will be playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl which was the team who was involved in a tragic plane crash last summer that claimed the lives of all members of the team on board.

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Anton Khudobin

 

Ust-Kamenogorsk was really made popular at the end of San Jose Sharks training camp at the beginning of the 2007-08 season when the Sharks announced that Dimitri Patzold would be the backup for Evgeni Nabokov to start the year, beating out German goalie Thomas Greiss for the job. That meant that both the Sharks goalies were born in the same city in Kazakhstan which was a neat little coincidence to most hockey fans.

Dimitri got into three NHL games that year and that was because of Nabokov playing the first 43 games of the season before taking a break. Like Nabby, Patzold doesn't represent Kazakhstan internationally, but instead Germany. Dimitri was born and raised in Ust-Kamenogorsk but moved to Germany as a teenager, so he chooses to represent the German contingent instead of his homeland of Kazakhstan. He has played in the 2010 Winter Olympics as well as four World Championships. Dimitri, for the past few years, has been playing his hockey in the German League since he realized he wasn't going to make it as an NHL goaltender—well, at least as a starter.

When Anton Khudobin was 13 years old, Evgeni Nabokov—who had just finished his first season in the NHL—came to Khudobin's goaltending school in Ust-Kamenogorsk (Kazzinc-Torpedo Goaltending School).

Anton also (like Nabby) plays for Russia internationally instead of Kazakhstan. He moved there in his teens and developed through the Metallurg Magnitogorsk system. In 2004, Khudobin won the gold medal for Russia at the World U18 Championships and was also named to the tournament all-star team. His play in that tournament led to the Minnesota Wild drafting him 206th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

The next year he would come to North America to play for the WHL's Saskatoon Blades where he posted a 23-13-2 record for them in the 2005-06 season. From there he would toil around in the ECHL/AHL and currently has only played in six NHL games, and has a very strong 4-1 record with a very impressive 1.39 GAA and .955 save percentage in his short time playing with the Minnesota Wild.

At the trade deadline two years ago, Khudobin was traded to the Boston Bruins and spent the rest of the season playing for the Providence Bruins of the AHL. Anton was called up by the Boston Bruins for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and even though he never got into any action, he still got a Stanley Cup ring. Going into the 2012-13, Anton is the backup goalie for the Boston Bruins behind Tuukka Rask.

 

After going through the five NHL goalies that hail from Ust-Kamenogorsk and its goaltending school, you have to wonder who will be the next goalie to make their way to the NHL from this small city. Although it is a long shot, there best bet would be Andrei Yankov, who stands at only 5"8 and weighs a mere 128 pounds. But he is very athletic and has a quick glove.

We saw this when Kazakhstan went up against Canada at the 2009 World Juniors on TSN and we saw a beleaguered Andrei Yankov show heart and make 35 saves on 44 shots before being pulled going into the third period with the score 9-0. The final score would be 15-0 as the Kazakhs were truly outmatched by the Canadians.

Yankov had two other memorable performances that tournament. The first being a 12-0 loss where Yankov stopped 49 of 61 shots and the other a 7-1 loss to Finland where he would make 43 saves on 50 shots. Andrei is currently playing with Kazzinc-Torpedo just like Nabby, Yeremeyev and Kolesnik once did at Yankov's age.

So will he be the next Kazakh goalie to make it to the NHL? You never know. In Ust-Kamenogorsk, anything is possible.


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