By Daniel Friedman
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Depending on who you talk to, Evgeni Nabokov either had himself a solid year or a horrendous one for the New York Islanders in 2013.
Nabokov certainly wasn’t at one hundred percent during the playoffs, there’s absolutely no question about that. However, it’s not entirely his fault that the Islanders lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in May.
The Isles’ porous defense let a storm through, one Nabokov had little choice but to attempt to weather. Even had he played better, there’s no guarantee the outcome would’ve been different.
Most goaltenders struggled against Pittsburgh in 2013, a team that averaged the most goals-per-game and scored the most total goals in both the regular season (3.38, 162) and playoffs (3.27). The Penguins racked up 49 goals in 15 postseason contests.
You’re talking about a lineup that netted four goals or more a whopping 22 times and were never shut-out during the regular season.
To put things in perspective, consider the following:
Between the regular season and playoffs, Ottawa’s Craig Anderson played eight games against Pittsburgh and recorded a save percentage below .900 in six of those skirmishes.
Henrik Lundqvist faced the Penguins on five different occasions, losing four times and posting a save percentage below .900 in three of those games. Lundqvist surrendered an average of three goals a night, which is not something he generally does.
As for the Devils’ Martin Brodeur, he gave up six goals in two meetings with Pittsburgh, including five in one game.
The bottom line is, it’s not as if the Islanders were facing the Winnipeg Jets. Had that been the case, there would be a lot more cause for concern.
Something else to keep in mind is that your last impression of Nabokov is probably not a good one, but it’s important to remember that, without him, the Islanders would never have made the playoffs — period. That despite the phenomenal year John Tavares had, which undoubtedly had a major impact on the course of the Isles’ season as well.
Nabokov won 23 games in 2013, the second-most of any goaltender in the NHL. He faced the fifth-most shots during the regular season. Only Lundqvist, Antti Niemi, Ondrej Pavelec and Ryan Miller faced more, and Nabokov had better stats than two of those goaltenders.
Just six goalies played in more games and only three played more minutes. Nabokov also made the seventh-most saves in the NHL during the 2013 season.
His 2.50 goals-against average was a tad higher than Jonathan Quick (2.45). It was better than Carey Price (2.59) and Ryan Miller (2.81). Nabby’s .910 save percentage was as good as Pekka Rinne, and better than Nicklas Backstrom (.909), Price (.905), Quick (.902) and Brodeur (.901), to name a few.
It’s worth noting that, in 2013, Nabokov made 30 saves or more 12 times.
He stopped 39 shots in a key road win at Toronto on January 24th, 37 during a convincing 4-1 victory at Pittsburgh on January 29th, 36 in a 4-3 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on February 14th, 35 in a 4-0 shut-out at Buffalo on February 23rd) and 35 in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Blueshirts on March 7th at the Coliseum. On that night in particular, Nabby matched Lundqvist save-for-save until the very end.
No thanks to Rick DiPietro, Nabokov was definitely overworked. That’s not a good thing for any goaltender — let alone one who’s in his late-30’s — but it doesn’t make him unreliable, either.
If Nabby were getting adequate amounts of rest and still struggled, then I’d see there was an argument to be made that he simply can’t handle being a starting net-minder at this level anymore.
The key for the Islanders will be to have a reliable backup, whether it’s Kevin Poulin or someone on the free agent market, who will be able to shoulder a significant portion of the workload and take some of the heat off Nabokov.
New York would be smart to enter negotiations with Tim Thomas or Johan Hedberg. Bringing either one of those players aboard would provide the team with increased stability between the pipes. Were they to land the former, that would be some kind of ironic, considering the fact that he was technically an Islander this past year.
Jose Theodore is another interesting name to consider, though he’s produced very mixed results over the last few seasons. It’s no secret that Garth Snow loves reclamation projects and Theodore certainly fits that bill.
It’s not that Kevin Poulin isn’t a talented goaltender; it’s just that the NHL isn’t the place for him at this stage of his development. If he’s being groomed to be the future starter, then he needs to be logging a ton of minutes and that’s something he’ll be able to do in Bridgeport.
Evgeni Nabokov is a better goaltender than Isles fans give him credit for. If you have an uninspiring performance, you’re a very easy target and that’s precisely what Nabokov is right now.
I understand why people would be frustrated with him, but not why those same people would throw away the rest of his body of work over six disappointing games. That, there’s just no rationale for, nothing whatsoever that justifies it. To do that is to lose sight of the big picture.
You’ll have to excuse me for not jumping on that bandwagon.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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