San Jose Sharks: Why Their Season Hinges on the Play of Evgeni Nabokov

Andy Bensch@@AndyBenschSenior Writer IOctober 6, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Evgeni Nabokov #20 of the San Jose Sharks looks on against the Anaheim Ducks during the preseason game at the Honda Center on September 21, 2009 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

When the San Jose Sharks traded for Dany Heatley, one thing became certain: the Sharks will not have any problems scoring goals.

You don't just add a bonafide superstar sniper to a top line that features arguably the best setup man in the league and still struggle to put "the rubber in the basket."

The combination of Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton has yet to combine for a goal in the prototypical fashion of Thornton passing and Heatley shooting. Yet the two of them have already combined for four points (one goal, three assists), and the one goal came on one of the prettiest passes in the game of hockey.

"The Heater" floated a pass over the defenseman's stick and onto the tape of "Big Joe," who finished off the two-on-one rush with a nifty backhand shot that gave San Jose a 3-0 first period lead against the rival Ducks.

Later on in the game, the entire top line contributed to another sweet passing play. This time Heatley set up fellow winger Devin Setoguchi, who finished off a beautiful give-and-go passing sequence. On the play ,Thornton picked up the secondary assist, getting all three forwards in on this particular scoring play.

Clearly, the Sharks are going to play a significant amount of games where every member of their top line finds themselves on the scoresheet.

However, it is not clear whether they will play a signifcant number of games where goaltender Evgeni Nabokov stops 24 out of 25 shots like he did on Saturday in Anaheim.

Nabokov, who is often considered as an "elite" goaltender by many, has not played up to his capabilities since the lockout. Despite a 2007-08 season where he was a Vezina candidate, Nabokov hasn't come close to putting up the type of numbers he reached in the final season prior to the lockout.

The 34-year-old's best season (which, wouldn't you know it, was the Sharks' best season ever as they reached the conference finals) came in 2003-04 where he registered a .921 save percentage, and nine shutouts.

Now to be fair, Nabokov posted a lower goals against average (2.14) and more wins (46) then he did in his 2003-04 season, where he won just 31 games with a GAA of 2.21.

But on the same token, Nabokov's GAA was just .07 higher in 03-04. Much like how wins as a stat category for baseball's Cy Young Award should be thrown out, wins for goaltenders are largely based on goal support.

Therefore, when you look at the numbers side by side, Nabokov had .11 better save percentage and three more shutouts in 03-04 than he did in 07-08. With save percentage and shutouts a better description of a goalie's talent then wins and GAA, Nabokov's 03-04 season looks much stronger.

Anyone who argues otherwise would have an extremely difficult time proving his case. Hmmm, didn't the NHL cut down the allowed size of goalie pads after the lockout? Well, maybe, that is the reason for Nabokov's drop in numbers.

However in reality, the reason for Nabokov's decline is because the former Calder Trophy winner is now 34-years-old and nine years removed from his impressive burst onto the NHL scene.ย 

Despite still being considered as a "top" goalie in the NHL, Nabokov finished last season 24th in save percentage (.910) of all goaltenders who had started 20+ games. If you're suppose to be an "elite" goaltender, you should be at the very least top-15 in every major category for your position. Nabokov on the other hand, wasn't even top-20 last season.

Furthermore, come playoff time, Nabokov's troubles intensified as he was significantly out-played by his counterpart (Jonas Hiller of the Ducks), who was participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the very first time.

Nabokov finished the series with a 2.82 GAA, .890 save percentage, 138 saves and zero shutouts.

Meanwhile, Hiller finished the series with a 1.66 GAA, .958 save percentage, 240 saves and two shutouts.

Numerous goals scored by the Ducks were due to a lack of awareness by the Sharks netminder, who couldn't locate the puck and ended up allowing the puck to slip between his legs.

Now even though the Sharks were disappointed by being eliminated in the first round, the Sharks should have been be even more disappointed because the Ducks didn't beat themโ€”they beat themselves.

It wasn't as if both teams played great and one team had to win game seven and move on, the Sharks were terrible and a big part of it was the poor performance by Nabokov.

If another poor performance in net during the postseason were to happen again, not only will the Sharks be knocked out early for the fifth straight season but Nabokov's career as a Shark will certainly be over.

And when that happens, Nabokov's career as a starter in the NHL may also be over. Who are we kidding, what team would want to overpay for a 35-year-old netminder with a history of postseason struggles?

As I mentioned above, the Sharks will have no problems scoring this season. But the jury is still out on whether or not they will have problems keeping their opponents from scoring.

If they want to finally break through, win a Stanley Cup, and keep their team intact (since numerous high-profile players are in contract years), then Evgeni Nabokov must have a comeback regular season and playoffs.

Two games into this season, we have already seen both the good Nabokov and the bad Nabokov. In the opener, "Nabby," as they call him at the Shark Tank, allowed five goals on just the first 14 shots he faced and ended up saving just 15 of 20. However, this past Saturday against the Ducks, "Nabby" bounced back by stopping 24 of 25 shots, carrying a shutout through the middle of the third period.

In order for the Sharks and their fan base to be rejoicing come June, it's not going to matter how many times they rock out to "Rock N' Roll Part Two." Instead, its going to matter how often they chant "NAAA-BBY! NAAA-BBY! NAAA-BBY!" and how few times they simply shake their head and say "nabbby, nabby, nabby."


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