It's a weird thought...someone other than Evgeni Nabokov regularly between the pipes for the San Jose Sharks.
Nabokov’s career in the NHL has spanned 11 seasons and three different decades, with all of them in teal. He is the leader in almost every all-time Sharks goaltending stat imaginable and thinking about a season without the flexible Russian seems quite eerie.
Nabokov has been the rock for this Sharks organization over the past decade, largely helping them to become true Stanley Cup contenders. Without his solid and consistent net play during the regular season, the Sharks probably would not have earned the several banners hanging from the rafters.
But the one banner missing from that rafter is undeniably the most important.
With Nabokov’s contract reaching its conclusion at the end of this season, many have to wonder whether or not the Sharks will re-sign him if he does not win that ultimate prize.
The former Calder Trophy winner never fails to appear tentative when it comes to those early playoff matchups, often times forcing his team to play with their backs against the wall. But this is a story that Bay Area hockey fans know all too well.
Most recently, Nabokov took a back alley beating at the hands of the Canadian team in quarterfinal round of the 2010 Winter Olympics. This pounding has to make you wonder just how effective “Nabby” will be this season when the games matter the most.
But, with the spectacular numbers that Nabokov has been able to muster during the regular season, an enormous free agency pay day would mean an increase to his current $6M per year salary.
Do the Sharks really want to spend a huge fraction of the team’s salary on a player who has proven time after time that he cannot reach that next step?
Unfortunately, the list of goalie free agents for this offseason is not exactly plentiful and Doug Wilson will have to decide on whether they want to lock down an All-Star goaltender with hurdle issues for the rest of his career or test the waters of young unproven talent and aging stars looking for a second chance.
If Wilson decides to go with the latter, here is a list of goaltenders currently expected to hit Free Agency at season’s end that I would be interested in seeing don the teal...at least for one season
While Ray Emery’s social issues tend to be a locker room problem almost everywhere he goes, his sporadic success during the regular season and in the playoffs has to spark a little intrigue.
An 18-12 record and a .904 save percentage in the postseason are not too shabby and he has something that Nabokov does not have on his resume...a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
Emery’s health has also been a problem as of late (currently out for the rest of the season with a hip injury) but before he went down he was having a decent season (2.70 GAA, .904 SV).
This locker room cancer would not be a long term solution for the Sharks but if it comes down to getting someone with experience to help younger goaltenders grow, Emery could be the solution.
Maybe the California sun will do wonders for his attitude and his play. But that could be wishful thinking.
Chris Mason is another journeyman goaltender that has been able to find regular season success throughout his career.
Mason boasts a regular season record of 107-82, posting a .914 save percentage and a 2.55 GAA in those games. Where Mason has stumbled is in the playoffs. A 1-8 record is hardly anything to write home about, but a .907 Save Percentage and 2.93 GAA in the postseason does not sound as horrid as his record might make it appear.
While Mason wouldn’t exactly be a pick up most fans would be clamoring for, he could be an excellent interim goalie that will still put the Sharks in excellent position to win games throughout a season.
With Mason’s age reaching that point where his years in the league are definitely numbered, his options could be limited and the Sharks could snag a great deal if the salary numbers are to their likings.
Sharks’ fans will never forget Vesa Toskala and the magic that surrounded him as the “back-up” goalie for five seasons in San Jose. He snatched the hearts of fans but often failed to surpass the greatness of Nabokov in his hey-day. Many were saddened by his departure but understood that he had to go.
Toskala lands second in all-time wins as a Shark and his GAA in teal is number one amongst San Jose goaltenders that played at least 30 games.
After leaving San Jose, “Tosk” got off to a great start in Toronto, recording a .904 Save Percentage and 2.74GAA. But as of late, he has many wondering if he has past his prime.
With a much better defense and offense in front of him, Toskala could still have some of that value that Sharks fans were impressed by his first time around with the team. His current downturn in stats should force him to take a dock in his $4M per season pay, possibly putting a goaltender that still possesses a glimmer of potential in the Sharks price range.
Kari Lehtonen, the second overall pick in the 2002 NHL draft, has been stuck in goaltending hell his entire tenure in the league.
Starting off his career with the often-horrid Atlanta Thrashers, Lehtonen was forced to grow into the fast-paced NHL with very little surrounding support. Despite this trial by fire, the 26-year old Finnish goaltender has managed to maintain a .912 Save Percentage, a 2.89 GAA, and amazingly, a winning record (94-84).
At the trade deadline this season, Lehtonen was traded to the Dallas Stars but has only played two games since the move. It is somewhat unclear what the Stars plan on doing with the young prospect, but with Marty Turco also on the Free Agency List this offseason, it is most likely that they will only try and re-sign only one of them.
The lack of ice-time by Lehtonen makes me wonder if the Stars are actually interested in keeping him. While Dallas is currently on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, a prolonged stumble could open an opportunity for Lehtonen to impress the coaches. But if the Stars ride Turco deep into the playoffs, dropping Lehtonen may not be a too far-fetched possibility.
Lehtonen can offer the Sharks a pretty solid future in net, especially playing behind a list of proven All-Stars. This supporting cast can only help his already impressive numbers. He still has several years in the NHL ahead of him and could easily become a solid franchise goaltender if his projected draft day talent finally reaches fruition.
Lehtonen’s contract isn’t exactly user friendly ($3M in 09-10) but if they can pull off a new back-loaded, bonus incentive-laced contract, it could end up working in the Sharks favor.
Touted to be the savior of the Montreal Canadians in net, Carey Price, the fifth round pick of the 2005 draft, has had a chaotic time playing for one the most storied franchises in the NHL.
Price was immediately tapped as the starter for Montreal coming out of juniors, but after two mediocre regular seasons and a couple rocky playoff stints, he has already had to fight for his job. In his third year with the Habs, Price has had to split time with another up and coming goaltending prospect, Jaroslav Halak.
Depending on which goaltender the turbulent Montreal front office feels best fits their future plans, Price could be looking for a new home when the offseason arrives.
After a spectacular performance at the HP Pavillion early this month, Price definitely turned a few heads in the Bay Area. His ability to shine is unquestionably noticeable but he still needs sometime to grow in order to become the stud goaltender that many have predicted.
Playing amongst the hard to please fans of Montreal hasn’t helped the psyche of this budding prospect and a change of scenery could be just what Price needs to take his game to the next level.
Price has exceptional talent and his entire hockey playing future is still in front of him. If the Sharks could land a battle tested prospect like this, they may be able to seamlessly transition from the aging Nabokov to another goaltender they can rely on for the next decade.