San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson announced in a press conference Tuesday that the Sharks have decided not to offer a new contract to unrestricted free agent goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
This marks the end of a 10-year Sharks career for the former Calder Memorial Trophy winner (rookie of the year), two-time Russian Olympian, and multiple-time All-Star goaltender.
Nabokov has been the starting goaltender in San Jose since taking over for Steve Shields in his rookie season of 2000-2001. Since that time he survived pressure from backup Miikka Kiprusoff, who became one of the elite goalies in the league after a trade to Calgary, and Kipper's successor Vesa Toskala, who briefly wrested the starting job from Nabby in 2005-2006, when he started every game of the playoff run for San Jose.
Wilson thanked Nabokov for his contributions to the Sharks over the years and said the motivation behind the decision was purely monetary . The Sharks have a variety of other key free agents—both restricted and unrestricted—including former captain Patrick Marleau, potential future captain Joe Pavelski, and emerging forward Devin Setoguchi. Making the decision more than a week before free agency begins alleviates them of Evgeni Nabokov's salary and means that the Sharks will have more time to exclusively negotiate with these key players, but it also carries other implications.
Wilson was vague as to whether he thought current backup goaltender, Thomas Greiss, was ready to be the starter, saying only that he was ready to "compete" for that position. The Sharks also have Alex Stalock, who posted a .919 save percentage and a 2.28 goals against average in the Calder Cup playoffs with AHL affiliate Worchester this spring. While both will certainly compete for the starting position in training camp, Wilson's comments certainly do not exclude the possibility of a veteran free agent joining the mix as well.
The Sharks have a strong history of developing talented goaltenders, like Nabokov, Kiprusoff, and Toskala, but that was under the tutelage of the late Warren Strelow. Greiss has proven to be a reasonable backup to this point in his career, but has yet to show concrete indications that he can be relied upon as a starter. In recent years Jonas Hiller, Antti Niemi, and Jaroslav Halak have proven that relative unknowns in goal can lead a team in the playoffs, but there is no guarantee such luck will fall on the Sharks.
Ultimately, the team will not know for sure until they give Greiss an honest shot at starting. As long as he can hold off competition in training camp, he deserves that chance, but I think the Sharks should add an insurance policy of some kind, in case Greiss struggles.
The decision also serves as a potential indicator of a very promising shift within the Sharks' organization: an alleviation of the erstwhile organizational loyalty that has held the team back from some opportunities in the past. Loyalty is an admirable virtue, but it does not always (or even often) translate to success in professional athletics.
Though neither has won a Stanley Cup, many would legitimately argue that the Sharks made the wrong choice in keeping Nabby and trading Kipper to Calgary. Similarly, Doug Wilson brought in an aging Claude Lemieux in 2009 mostly because of the personal relationship between the two. While he made some contributions, he was virtually non-existent in the playoffs, effectively shortening the team's bench and exacerbating their struggles against Anaheim.
This decision was primarily fiscally driven, but nonetheless, the willingness to part with a core player like Nabokov shows that the Sharks could potentially be moving forward in their team culture and may now be more willing to do whatever is necessary to improve their roster as much as possible.
This could bode very well for the team in the future.
Best of luck to Evgeni Nabokov.
Keep the Faith!