"What is with all this paying of dues that I have to do?"
On last night's (January 22, 2011) edition of Hockey Night in Canada, Ron MacLean seemed to prompt Mike Milbury to criticize New York Islander general manager Garth Snow for claiming free agent goaltender Evgeni Nabokov off waivers. Attacking Snow and Islander owner Charles Wang has become a bloodsport among hockey "journalists."
If that was MacLean's intent, he was disappointed. To his credit, Milbury put the blame where it belongs: on Nabokov. He defended the NHL's rule governing players like Nabokov, who leave the NHL to play elsewhere at the start of the season and then decide they want to return.
The rules ensure that such players will not be able to cherrypick the teams they want to join, but will have to pay their dues with teams that are struggling. Snow did exactly what any good GM should do in that situation: try to obtain a player who will improve his team within the NHL's rules. Milbury made it clear that Nabokov needed to pay his dues and report.
Nabokov has made a series of misjudgments, of which this was the latest. He misjudged the market for his services in the NHL and wound up playing in the KHL. Although he was able to get the $6 million contract that he wanted in the KHL, his experience there was not what he hoped it would be, and the hefty contract was terminated by mutual agreement.
He then signed with the Detroit Red Wings, apparently not realizing that he would have to clear waivers and that it was very unlikely that he would do so. Now he seems intent on making another terrible misjudgement by not reporting to the Islanders.
The smart play for Nabokov is to report to the Islanders, pay his dues and play well. Dwayne Roloson's experience shows how a veteran can parlay solid play for a rebuilding team like the Islanders into a roster spot on a contender. Nabokov could have done that as early as this summer if he had reported to the Islanders. By refusing to report, he is jeopardizing not only that, but his entire future in the NHL.
Even at his best, no one would ever confuse Nabokov's play with a Hasek or Brodeur in their prime. And his insistence on playing for a playoff contender is ironic given his rather notorious reputation for choking in the playoffs. Add up his rather plain vanilla regular season stats, his playoff failures, his exodus to the KHL and his refusal to report to play for the Islanders, and any GM for a contending team is likely to take a pass on Nabokov, especially since there are better options out there for most teams.
How does the move reflect on Snow as a GM? Quite well, actually. Snow had one goaltender (Rick DiPietro) whose health has been questionable for the past few years, as well as this year, another who would benefit from more time in the AHL (Kevin Poulin) and another who had just been injured in a game in Buffalo (Nathan Lawson). Obviously Snow could use a capable veteran goaltender and, just when he needed it, he apparently found a way to obtain one. Nabokov's refusal to report doesn't change the fact that it was the right move for Snow to make.
Of course, some will say that Snow put himself in this situation by trading Roloson to Tampa when he did. This criticism would be based on the rather shallow analysis made by many of the Roloson trade. The hockey media was just a little too eager to portray the shining new star from the great Red Wings organization (Steve Yzerman) taking advantage of the incompetent owner's lackey from the bumbling Islander organization (Snow). As has generally been the case with criticism of Snow in his tenure as Islanders' GM, these assumptions are just plain wrong.
If Snow were given truth serum, I am sure that he would tell us that he would have preferred to have held on to Roloson until much closer to the deadline. Yzerman, on the other hand, wanted Roloson ASAP and was willing to overpay to make the deal. He thus offered Ty Wishart, one of the best prospects in his system, for the rental of a 41-year-old goaltender. This was a deal Snow just could not refuse.
How good a prospect is Wishart? When the San Jose Sharks drafted him in 2006, they had to spend their second-round pick to move up from the No. 20 to the No. 16 pick to get him. He then became the key piece in the trade that sent Dan Boyle from Tampa to San Jose.
The drafting of Victor Hedman played an important role in keeping him off the Tampa roster. Depending on whether the Islanders draft Adam Larsson this summer, Wishart will likely become either a second or third pairing defender in the near future. As much as Snow surely hated leaving his team without veteran depth in the crease, this was a move he had to make.
Should Nabokov report to the Islanders?
Although Yzerman paid a big price to get Roloson when he did, if Roli gets Tampa another Cup, it will have been well worth it. One has to wonder what Yzerman was thinking when, immediately after the trade, he signed Roloson's bad luck charm Marc Andre Bergeron.
Oiler fans, in particular, will recall that in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, Bergeron sent a Hurricane forward careening into Roloson, causing an injury that would knock Roli out for the rest of the series and, in the minds of many Oiler fans, costing them the Cup. That will all be forgotten, however, if the Lightning win the Cup this year.
As for Nabokov, Snow could play hardball and have the NHL "toll" his contract so that he can only play for the Islanders next year. Hard to see Snow doing that. He won't need Nabokov next year, and if it takes such a stratagem to get the troubled Russian on the roster, he will likely be locker room poison—the last thing the young Islander team needs.
Besides, it now seems that Lawson will only miss one-two weeks and, with the All-Star break soon upon us, Poulin will be able to go back down to the AHL soon.
Nabokov would provide valuable insurance against another DiPietro injury, but he is hurting himself more than anyone else by not reporting.