After spending the 2010-11 season playing in the KHL and sitting in limbo while refusing to report to the New York Islanders, Evgeni Nabokov made his preseason debut for the team on Tuesday night, stopping 15 of the 16 shots he faced in two periods of play during their 2-0 loss to the Calgary Flames.
Last summer Nabokov signed a four-year, $24 million deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL after spending 10 productive seasons with the San Jose Sharks. His KHL experience proved to be a disappointing one, posting a .888 save percentage in 22 appearances (by comparison: the other two goalies on his team were both over .900 for the season) before he and the team mutually parted ways in December.
At that point Nabokov attempted to make a return to the NHL, signing a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings. Because he had spent part of the season playing overseas he had to pass through waivers before he could play for Detroit, and the Islanders, in desperate need of a goaltender after a series of trades (Dwayne Roloson) and injuries, put a claim in for him. Nabokov ultimately refused to report and didn't play again in 2011.
He later said that his decision to not join the Islanders had nothing to do with his unwillingness to play for the team, and more to do with the fact that he hadn't skated in nearly two months and didn't feel he could help the team in what was -- at that time -- a playoff push.
Here's what he told Newsday prior to training camp:
“What made me make that decision is that I hadn’t skated for a month-and-a-half when they claimed me. They were out of the playoffs, but battling to get in and, as a goalie, I know the goalie position is important when fighting for position [in the standings],” Nabokov said. “I didn’t feel that I could help them to get to the playoffs. I needed three to four weeks to get ready and the season would’ve been over.”
“I was not feeling the strongest and Detroit was in a totally different position,” Nabokov said. “They were going to the playoffs and willing to wait. The Islanders needed help then.”
Still under contract with the Islanders, he reported to camp this season and is competing for a roster spot to go along with the oft-injured Rick DiPietro.He finally made his first appearance on Tuesday, and for the most part things went well playing behind a roster that dressed few NHL regulars and a number of prospects and minor leaguers. He did allow a shorthanded goal to Curtis Glencross at the 4:10 mark of the second period, but stopped every other shot he faced on the night.
The most frustrating part of his performance, if you're an Islanders fan, is that he seemed to make things more difficult for himself and his teammates by turning the puck over on a number of occassions, especially in the first period, while attempting to play it.
It should be interesting to see what plans the Islanders have for Nabokov. Will he compete for the No. 1 job with DiPietro? Will they look to use him as a chip in the trading market? Or will they go with him as DiPietro's backup as a veteran insurance policy in case of an injury? Either way, Tuesday night was a promising start.
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