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Top 100 Goalies: No. 56 — Evgeni Nabokov

‘Nabby’ was a ninth-round flier who the Sharks didn’t even bother scouting. Fast-forward 20 years and he turned out to be San Jose’s greatest goalie ever.

Ust-Kamenogorsk is an industrial city of about 320,000 in eastern Kazakhstan near the Chinese border. The city is known for having a large ethnic Russian population and for its minerals such as uranium and zinc. But it is also the biggest hockey hotbed in all of Kazakhstan, by far. In total, it has produced 24 NHL draft picks and 10 NHLers – the most well-known, without a doubt, being Evgeni Nabokov.

For a long time, Ust-Kamenogorsk was considered ‘Hockeytown Kazakhstan,’ and its hockey school was regarded as one of the best in the Soviet Union. The goalie school in town, run by Nabokov’s father, Viktor, was no different. A long list of goalies that Viktor developed ended up playing pro in Russia, and a couple even made their way to the NHL, including his son. “Like anything else, if you have people who want to put time into goaltending, you will see the results,” Nabokov said. “That’s why you’ve seen those kind of results, because in Ust-Kamenogorsk people cared about goaltending. And it wasn’t just my dad, even though he was the guy who ran the goalie school. In order to have the practices, you need the ice. And if nobody cares about the goalies, they’re not going to give you the ice time. In my town, people cared about it and gave us a lot of ice time, and because of that we were able to practice a lot.”

A common theme from those coming out of the Ust-Kamenogorsk goalie factory was a narrow stance and a more upright hybrid style, most commonly seen in Nabokov but also used by the likes of Anton Khudobin, Vitali Yeremeyev and Vitali Kolesnik. “You have to feel the edges,” Nabokov said, “and back then it was more of a standup style, so you needed to move on your feet very well. If your stance is really wide, it’s hard to move on your feet, so that’s where all that comes from. All of the drills we did involved lots of footwork.”

Nabokov played all of his youth and junior hockey for Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk. He made his debut with the men’s team at just 16, and it was around this time ‘Nabby’ started getting his first taste of international action. He played a bit for the Soviet national junior team, and then after the Soviet Union split up he represented Kazakhstan at the 1994 World Championship in Group C.

Nabokov was in goal for the Torpedo men’s team one night during the 1993-94 season and played superbly as the Kazakh squad pulled off an upset over Dynamo Moscow. The Russian powerhouse offered him an invitation to join the team, and because this was after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it made it a little easier of a decision to leave home.

After his last season with Torpedo, Nabokov was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the ninth round, 219th overall, in 1994. He was selected despite no one in the Sharks organization ever watching him play, in person or on tape. Tim Burke, a Sharks’ scout who was in Russia scouting a different goalie, saw Nabokov on an advertisement and recognized who his father was. Burke remembered the name and got San Jose to draft him on a flier. Nabokov had no idea he’d been picked by an NHL team until months later when he was a member of Dynamo Moscow. He was sitting in a sauna minding his own business when his coaches walked in holding a newspaper with his name printed on the draft list.

As part of Dynamo Moscow, Nabokov quickly became one of the top goaltenders outside the NHL. He won two Russian championships, in 1995 and 1996, and led his team to the 1997 European Club Championship. It was then, in ’97, three years after San Jose drafted him, that someone from the Sharks reached out to him.

Nabokov came over to North America in the fall of ’97 and spent a couple seasons with San Jose’s AHL affiliates in Kentucky and Cleveland, learning the North American style of play and getting accustomed to life outside Russia. He made his first NHL start on Jan. 19, 2000, when he went up against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche. Nabokov made 39 saves in a 0-0 shutout tie, and the Sharks knew right then and there they had their future No. 1. This was confirmed the next season when Nabokov claimed the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.

Although he was a top-five goaltender in the NHL for many years, perhaps the biggest highlight of Nabokov’s career came in 2008 at the World Championship after the Sharks were eliminated from the playoffs. “That was interesting because it happened after the second-round series with Dallas when we lost in Game 6 in that long four-overtime game,” Nabokov said. “I wasn’t sure if I had the juice to go and play, but Vladislav Tretiak called and said basically that the team had a lot of injuries. My ankle was hurt, so I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, but I told him that up front and he said, ‘I don’t care. If you’re on one leg you still got to come out.’ So off I went.”

Nabokov started in five games, won them all, and played a big role in Russia winning its first gold medal at the worlds since 1993. He made the all-star team and was named the tournament’s best goaltender. “Winning the gold medal was something I’ll never forget,” he said. “The final against Canada and (Ilya) Kovalchuk’s goal to tie the game late in the third and then to win in overtime was amazing. But to be honest, right after the game, while the celebration was going on and everyone was so pumped, I had to go back to my hotel room for an hour or two to settle down because I was so exhausted.”

One of Nabokov’s other notable achievements is that he’s one of three goalies in NHL history (Martin Brodeur and Braden Holtby being the others) to post three consecutive 40-win seasons, which he did with San Jose from 2007 to 2010. Unfortunately, the Sharks were known for their playoffs failures and never advanced further than the conference final in any of those three years.

By the time he left San Jose in 2010, Nabokov had become the franchise leader in virtually every goaltending category, including games played, wins and shutouts. He’s the best goalie by a mile in Sharks history and he’ll likely get his number retired by the team at some point in the near future.

After spending a few years with the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, Nabokov retired at the age of 39 after 14 seasons in the NHL. He finished with 353 wins and 59 shutouts, which are both top-20 all-time.

Now 43 and living back in San Jose, Nabokov is the Sharks’ goaltending development coach and primarily works with the netminders on the team’s AHL affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda. Despite living in California year-round, Nabokov hasn’t forgotten his roots. He still goes back to Moscow in the summer and back home to Ust-Kamenogorsk to visit his parents and grandparents. The adjustment from player to coach is never easy, but Nabokov is enjoying every minute of his new job. “I love it,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to be. I took it slowly at first, but I love being in hockey, talking hockey, sharing certain things with the goalies and also learning from them. That’s another big thing, you learn, because when you play in goal you usually are stuck with what you have, and you play your style, but now as a coach, you’re way more open to looking at stuff and watching more video of the other goaltending styles, and that’s been a good lesson for me.”

Born: July 25, 1975, Kamenogorsk, USSR
NHL Career: 1999-2015
Teams: SJ, NYI, TB
Stats: 353-227-86, 2.44 GAA, .911 SP, 59 SO
All-Star: 1 (First-1)
Trophies: 1 (Calder)

DID YOU KNOW?

On March 10, 2002, Nabokov shot and scored into an empty net against Vancouver, becoming the first European goalie to do so in NHL history and the first goalie to score a power-play goal. Prior to that, though, Nabokov’s NHL career almost ended before it even began. When he first came to North America, he was playing for AHL Kentucky and was struggling to adapt to life in the U.S., the language and the style of play. He wanted to go home but was convinced to stay a little longer. It was around this time that he met his future wife. The rest, as they say, is history.

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