After finishing the regular season with the best record in the NHL last season, the San Jose Sharks failed to get past the first round of the playoffs. One of the reasons for their early departure was below average goaltending.
While the performance in net wasn't the main reason for the Sharks post-season demise, the situation in net is still an area of concern.
Despite the fact that San Jose has obviously lacked a scoring punch during their recent stretch of post-season disappointment, the performances by Evgeni Nabokov in goal also deserve some scrutiny.
In the six game series loss to the Anaheim Ducks, Nabokov stopped just 138 of 155 shots for a save percentage of .890.
Meanwhile his counterpart, Jonas Hiller, stopped 220 out of 230 shots for a save percentage of .956
To be fair, it is difficult to judge the quality of shots that Nabokov faced compared to those that Hiller faced, but either way it is clear which goalie stepped up his game.
In just his first career playoff action, Jonas Hiller made Evgeni Nabokov look like a career backup trying to play post-season hockey.
As the save numbers show, the Sharks out-shot Anaheim in the series, and therefore it is not as if Nabokov was under a barrage of shots. In fact, Sharks defenders kept Anaheim to just 155 shots in the six game series which averages to 25.8 shots per game. Hiller, on the other hand, faced an average of 38.33 shots per game.
Now, obviously it is easier to stop a bunch of mediocre shots to create a higher save percentage than it is to stop a smaller amount of point-blank shots.
However, it is difficult to remember Sharks defenders giving Anaheim forwards that many point-blank opportunities. But it is easy to remember that a rather significant amount of Anaheim goals were scored through the wickets of No. 20.
Perhaps Nabokov wasn't fully healthy come playoff time, but even if he was still hurt, it is not an excuse for poor performance. When it comes to the post-season, the team needs a goaltender who is healthy enough to perform at the top of his game.
It is clear that Nabokov wasn't healthy enough to perform at that level. But the problem was that backup Brian Boucher wasn't of the level to which the Sharks felt comfortable in making a switch.
Coincidentally, as free-agency came about this month, Brian Boucher wasn't offered a contract extension by the Sharks and has since returned to his former team, the Philadelphia Flyers.
Without a backup goalie, the Sharks were rumored to be in the running for Swedish net-minder Jonas Gustavsson. However, apparently the Sharks did not do enough to persuade the former free-agent that San Jose was his best option because Gustavsson signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The decision Gustavsson made is quite puzzling because the Toronto Maple Leafs haven't been to the playoffs since before the lockout. Toronto finished ninth in '05-'06 and '06-'07 and twelfth over the last two seasons in the Eastern Conference.
Obviously being a perennial playoff team wasn't enough for Gustavsson to sign with San Jose. More than just playing for a winner, Gustavsson wanted guaranteed playing time. So obviously the Sharks didn't guarantee as much ice time as Toronto, but rumor has it that Vesa Toskala is still the Leafs' No. 1 starter.
With Toskala as the clear-cut No. 1 in Toronto, Gustavsson would have been guaranteed more playing time in San Jose if the Sharks had offered him a platoon with Evgeni Nabokov. And in reality, the Sharks should have made that offer. Unfortunately, they think quite highly of a 34-year-old goaltender with groin problems.
With Gustavsson off the market, the Sharks have to look elsewhere in free-agency, and the guy for the job is Manny Fernandez.
Despite being a year older than Nabokov, Fernandez has always had the capability to get hot in goal and carry a team for a significant stretch of the season. Plus, in just 11 playoff games, Fernandez has posted a .927 save percentage and an even 2.00 goals against average.
To be fair, Fernandez has had more than his fair share of injury problems throughout his career, especially injuries to his left knee.
However, Fernandez is quite familiar with splitting time with a fellow goalie. The former Star, Wild, and Bruin split time with Dwayne Roloson in Minnesota and this past season with Tim Thomas in Boston.
With Nabokov struggling with groin injuries of his own, bringing in Fernandez to compete for playing time is an extremely important move for the Sharks. Last season Nabokov missed two significant stretches of the season where his recurring groin injury forced him out of the lineup.
Without Fernandez, the penciled in backup would be minor league goaltender Thomas Greiss. And if that is the case, an injury to Nabokov during the season would be catastrophic. If that were to happen without a proven backup, you could essentially kiss the Sharks' season goodbye.
Remember, the Sharks started the 2007-08 season with both former Shark prospect Dmitri Patzold and Griess as part-time backups for Nabokov. However, mid-way through that season the Sharks made the move to acquire Boucher as a veteran backup.
Boucher played well and the Sharks re-signed him for another season. Obviously, the Sharks didn't feel as if they could rely on Greiss in case of an injury. Their pursuit of Gustavsson this offseason shows that they must not have any more faith in Greiss than they did back in 2007.
Case in point, the Sharks need Manny Fernandez. They need someone who can push Evgeni Nabokov for playing time and be able to step up when called upon. Seeing that this season is Nabokov's contract year, it is all the more important to have someone keep him on top of his game.
If Nabokov struggles and Fernandez takes over the starting role, Evgeni's market in free-agency would drop extremely low. If he wants to hit the pay day, he's going to have to put up strong numbers this season.
However, without an experienced backup pushing him for playing time, who is going to expect Nabokov to improve on his performance from last season? He is 34 and with a decent season will still hit the jackpot in free-agency, but the Sharks need a spectacular season in goal, not a decent season.
Signing Manny Fernandez would be a reality check for Nabokov that he needs to step up his game if he wants to be the number one guy in net.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson is obviously not satisfied with his team's performance this past postseason. If it is true that nobody's job is safe, then he needs to make an impact signing to show the team that everybody is in jeopardy of losing their starting spot.
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