|Thursday, October 10
Will Nabokov's holdout hinder Sharks' Cup run?
By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com
In order to win a championship, particularly one involving a game virtually every two days for two months like the Stanley Cup playdowns, all the planets need to be in the proper alignment, all the stars glittering in the sky in the necessary constellations.
Such opportunity does not come along often in the professional life of an athlete, if at all.
The Sharks have prepared for this season a long time, tinkering here, drafting there; taking a financial hit on a free agent here, acquiring a vital ingredient there. Winning is a process and San Jose has seen that process through. From 78 points to 80 to 87 to 95, and then to 99 over the past five seasons has led them to the threshold of glory. There is depth and grit and a sublime mix of young and old, cohesion, skill to burn and a very definite sense of seizing the moment. The necessary parts are in place, the necessary dues have been paid. There's only one thing missing.
Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
It's early, of course. There is plenty of time to work out a deal. But without Nabokov, Nabokov at his best, the Sharks are simply not going to be able to get it done.
"You're right, it's extremely frustrating, to build and build, see things coming together the way you'd envisioned, the way you'd planned, and then be faced with this," concedes general manager Dean Lombardi. "We had the pieces in place last year, but I firmly believe teams need to go through adversity in order to understand how to be successful. Well, we went through that sort of adversity in the Colorado series.
"To have expectations so high and then not to have two important pieces (Nabokov and defenseman Brad Stuart) to the puzzle missing to start the season ... well, believe me, I can't begin to tell you how frustrating it is.
"We've put together this group of individuals carefully to emphasize the word 'team.' They're all important in reaching the goal we've set out to achieve. But we're not kidding anyone, when you take a No. 1 goalie out of the equation, a guy who's won as many games as John (Nabokov) has the past two years, it has to have an impact."
That day hasn't arrived yet. Nor, from the word around the Bay Area, will it anytime soon. History is not kind to goalies who miss all of training camp and part of the regular season.
"He wants to play," says Strelow, who spends an hour a day going through drills with his protégé. "He's going nuts sitting at home. He's constantly telling me 'I'm tired of the treadmill! I'm tired of the bike! I want to play hockey.' It's very wearing on him. This is an extremely competitive person.
"John's in excellent physical condition. But all the drills in the book aren't going to prepare you to play at regular-season level."
With the Sharks so close, begs the question, why threaten the whole enterprise over this impasse with someone so obviously vital to the equation?
"Three years from now, the CBA is going to have changed," points out Lombardi. "We believe in John. We think he's going to be a cornerstone of this franchise. We want him to be a San Jose Shark for a long, long time. John's 27 and with the uncertainty of what's coming up in 2004, it's added an additional dimension to the negotiations."
So tonight at HP Pavillion, it'll be 26-year-old Finn Miikka Kiprusoff between the pipes to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, an early litmus test to the true Cup credentials of the Sharks. Kiprusoff is a far more flamboyant sort of goalie, eliciting "ooohs" and "aaahs" from the seats for his Cirque de Soleil acrobatics. What he lacks (besides experience) is the fundamental soundness that has become Nabokov's trademark.
"Kiprusoff is an excellent prospect," rates Strelow. "He makes spectacular saves.
"We teach our goaltenders that they can, one, make a save standing up; two, make a save in the butterfly; three, make a save down with the pads stacked; four, make a spectacular save that you can't explain.
Kiprusoff may be loaded with potential. But he ain't Nabokov. At least not yet. And the time for San Jose to strike is now.
From a Nabokov point of view, the Sharks got him absurdly cheap the last two seasons at $500,000 and then $800,000, although he did pocket a $250,000 bonus for winning the Calder Trophy ("Let's face it," admits Lombardi, "for what he did the past two years, he was underpaid"). When Jose Theodore -- like Nabokov, a Meehan client -- settled on his new deal, the price tag for blue-chip young goalies went up.
Trouble is, Nabokov is a young goalie in terms of NHL experience, but not in age (27).
The Sharks contend that under the current collective bargaining agreement -- geared to overspending on older, more proven but usually downsliding talent -- a speculated asking price of $4 million a season is too much to be forking out for a goaltender entering his third full NHL season, even one already so important and so decorated. Rumor has San Jose offering a backloaded contract over a longer term.
"We want our players to be accountable on the ice and in the dressing room. Well, we have to be accountable financially," says Lombardi. "And our payroll is allocated on the way the CBA is set up."
Ironically, Miikka Kiprusoff, not Evgeni Nabokov, had been ticketed as the backup to Steve Shields two years ago. To prep Kiprusoff for the job, the Sharks dispatched him to Cleveland of the American Hockey League for stretch of fine-tuning, expecting him to rejoin the big club in a couple of months or so. As fate would have it, however, Shields was injured the second game of the regular season, Nabokov stepped into the void and hasn't looked back. Until now.
Despite losing 6-3 to the Red Wings in their season opener, the Sharks are armed with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, but no proven No. 1 goaltender. And, quite frankly, at the end of the day it's impossible to think of one without the other.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.