Lightning’s Changes in the Crease

This past weekend, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that their 2014 offseason acquisition, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, was being placed on waivers. On Monday, he cleared waivers unclaimed by the other 29 teams in the NHL and his agent had later said that Nabokov needed some time to consider his future.

For the 39 year old who had spent 13 years in the NHL, his future must look bleak – like another famous former-NHL-star-turned-into-AHL-roster-player Mike Richards, Nabokov would be sent to the Lightning’s farm team, the Syracuse Crunch, to finish his career.

Nabokov has yet to make a decision, but many believe he will chose to retire rather than end his career in the minor leagues.

Nabokov Has Had Quite the Career

Whatever his decision is concerning his NHL career, Evgeni Nabokov will leave behind quite the legacy. He is 18th all-time in wins at 353 with career numbers of a .911 save percentage and 2.44 GGA. He saw the postseason 10 out of the 13 seasons he played in the NHL, including nine with the dominating Sharks and once in 2013 during the New York Islanders’ surprise run to the postseason.

In 2001, he won the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year after putting up a save percentage of .915, a goals against average of 2.19 and a record of 32-21-7 in 66 games with the San Jose Sharks. The Calder is a rare achievement for a goalie. In fact, since he won in 2001, only two goaltenders have won the award, the Bruins’ Andrew Raycroft and Blue Jackets’ Steven Mason. Before Nabokov’s name was etched into the Calder Trophy, seven years had gone by since the last goalie had won: none other than future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.

Evgeni Nabokov brings playoff experience from his days with the San Jose Sharks. (Dave Nelson/wikimedia)
Evgeni Nabokov played most of his career for the San Jose Sharks. (Dave Nelson/wikimedia)

 

Despite his achievements, there are also a few regrets in Nabokov’s career. He never won the Stanley Cup, going as far as six games in the 2004 Western Conference Finals against the Calgary Flames and four games in the 2010 Western Conference Finals, losing to the eventual Cup winners, the Chicago Blackhawks. He also ends his career only three games shy of the 700-games played mark.

This season his numbers were in sharp decline. In 11 games played for the Lightning, he held a 3-6-2 record, a .882 save percentage and a GAA of 3.15.

While not posting the numbers necessary to give Lightning starter Ben Bishop a reliable back-up, Nabokov was well-liked in the room, with both coach Jon Cooper and Bishop expressing sorrow that the veteran had been waived this week.

 

The New Young Gun

2014 Vezina Trophy Finalist Ben Bishop will remain as the Lightning’s number one man in net, but his new backup is already familiar with Bolts fans. Andrei Vasilevskiy had previously been recalled from the AHL to play for the Lightning four times in December, even at a time when both Bishop and Nabokov were healthy:

He had played admirably for the Lightning in his NHL debut on December 16 after Bishop sustained an injury, making 24 saves in a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Vasilevskiy also made some amazing saves in his next game on December 20 in Long Island, stopping 45 of an incredible 47 shots from the Islanders. Although he lost the game, his teammates later said he was the reason they felt like they were still in the game (Vasilevskiy would not give up the first goal until five minutes into the third period). He would go on to win his next two starts, a 4-3 decision over the Pittsburgh Penguins and a 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabers.

Vasilevskiy, the 19th overall pick by the Lightning in 2012, has excelled in on an international stage, winning gold in the Worlds in 2014, silver in the 2012 World Juniors and bronze in the 2013 and 2014 World Juniors and 2011 World U18s. Those are a lot of medals in four years at the highest height of competition in the hockey world.

He played two seasons in the KHL’s Salavat Yulaev Ufa and in 2014 made his North America debut with the Crunch. Although some European players have a hard time adjusting to the smaller North American ice (especially goalies, as skaters have less time and space to carry the puck), this was clearly not the case for the Russian.

In his first 24 games played at the AHL level, he posted an amazing 14-5-5 record with a 0.919 save percentage and 2.38 GAA, making his path to the NHL clear. Although a small sample size, his NHL stats in his four games in December are astounding: 3-1-0 in four games with a .937 save percentage and 1.76 GAA. It was clear that he was more comfortable in net than Nabokov.

On February 5, four days after Nabokov was put on waivers, Vasilevskiy made his first start as the bona fide backup for the Lightning and not as simply an AHL call-up. He made 33 saves on 36 shots while securing his fourth NHL win, turning back Dallas’ set of snipers: six shots from Jason Spezza and four from Tyler Seguin, third and first in scoring for the Stars.

As Evgeni Nabokov’s career comes to an end, another career is starting. The Lightning needed a backup they can trust and Vasilevskiy will have the chance to prove that Tampa Bay made the right decision to call him up.