Longtime Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov has officially retired after coming back to San Jose in a Monday trade. What legacy does the Russian leave behind?
It’s been a warm, classy week for the Sharks and Evgeni Nabokov. San Jose acquired ‘Nabby,’ 39, from the Tampa Bay Lightning for future considerations Monday. He officially retired Wednesday with his original NHL team at a press conference.
An emotional Nabokov expressed his gratitude toward Sharks GM Doug Wilson for the gesture of reacquiring him, and Nabokov thanked all his coaches over the years with the team, from Darryl Sutter to Ron Wilson to Todd McLellan. Nabokov tearfully praised his teammates for their support and paid tribute to his wife, Tabitha, laughing at her years of yelling profanities from the stands during games. Parents, fans, every other NHL team he played for – name the sect and Nabokov gave it a shoutout. He covered off everyone in a classy speech.
It’s only natural to review a player’s resume after he calls it quits. Sure, Nabby can’t sniff what recently retired Martin Brodeur did, but Nabby had quite a memorable career. What kind of legacy does he leave behind?
NABOKOV’S NHL LEGACY
Nabokov was one of the stronger regular season netminders of his generation. He wowed as a rookie in 2000-01, going 32-21-7 witha 2.19 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He became the first stopper since Martin Brodeur in 1994 to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, and he’s the only Russian goalie (born in Kazakhstan but a Russian citizen) ever to win it. He finished among the top five Vezina Trophy vote getters five times in his career. He led the NHL with 46 wins in 2007-08, starting a whopping 76 games that year and earning first-team all-star honors. Until Sergei Bobrovsky came along, Nabby was the only Russian goalie to win a major league award. He’s 18th on the all-time league wins list at 353, ahead of greats like Billy Smith, Mike Richter and Ron Hextall.
If only Nabokov had done anything in the playoffs. He flashed some brilliance early in his career, particularly in 2003-04, when he posted a 1.71 GAA and .935 SP with three shutouts during San Jose’s conference final run. But he gradually played his way out of San Jose’s plans with some memorable implosions. He coughed up three or more goals four times in his first-place Sharks’ round-1 loss to eighth-seeded Anaheim in 2009. Nabokov’s inability to win the big one and reach a Stanley Cup final kept him chained to the “very good” label instead of the “great” one.
His career epilogue was a bizarre one, too. He went from refusing to report to the New York Islanders in 2011, after he was mad they claimed him from Detroit on waivers, to starting for the Isles during their 2013 playoff run.
Another fun stat pack outlined in today’s presser: Nabokov was the first goalie to score a power play goal in the NHL and the first Russian goalie to score a goal, too.
NABOKOV’S SAN JOSE LEGACY
Arturs Irbe maintains cult hero status in the Silicon Valley. Miikka Kiprusoff and, well, technically Ed Belfour are the best netminders ever to wear teal. But until Antti Niemi takes this team to the promised land, Nabokov is the best, most decorated goalie in Sharks history by a mile. He’s played more than twice as many games as the next closest masked man, with more than double the shutouts, too, and almost double the wins. He narrowly trails the Sharks leaders in SP (Niemi, .916) and GAA (Vesa Toskala, 2.34).
Nabokov is also arguably the Sharks’ best draft pick ever relative to when they got him. Patrick Marleau was a great choice but was supposed to be at second overall in 1997. Ray Whitney and Sandis Ozolinsh were dynamite picks in 1991 but came in round 2. Nabokov went in the ninth round, 219th overall, in 1994. That even tops ‘Kipper’ going 116th the following year. And it’s too early for Joe Pavelski (205th in 2003) to take the title.
NABOKOV’S RUSSIAN LEGACY
Nabby’s international career with the Russians started slowly, as he was barred from competing for them at the 2002 Olympics, even though he held their citizenship, since he played for Kazakhstan in a previous IIHF event. He went on to play for the Russians in two Olympic tournaments, though. He excelled in 2006, shutting out the defending gold-medallist Canadians in a quarterfinal victory. He’d allowed just two goals in five games entering the semifinal, but the Finns put four shots past him, and the team in front of him failed to score once. That was as close as Nabokov would come to an Olympic medal, as he and the Russians struggled at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Nabby, however, did backstop Russia to a 2008 World Championship, winning the tourney’s best goaltender award. He’s also neck-and-neck with Nikolai Khabibulin in the “best Russian NHL goalie of all-time” debate, since Vladislav Tretiak never played the North American pro game. Nabokov boasts a 20-win edge on Khabibulin, but the ‘Bulin Wall’ has that elusive Stanley Cup.
So while Evgeni Nabokov faded from the public eye in the years leading up to his retirement, he’s had a career worth celebrating. He’s countable among the best at his position during his era, and he’s right up there with Russia’s greatest crease exports.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin