6 November 2013, 16:24

VOR's NHL: Nabby talks past and future

Unbelievable, and acknowledged as one of the greatest glove saves in decades: Nabokov snares a one-timer from Brad Richards of Dallas in overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup QF, May 4, 2009.

Unbelievable, and acknowledged as one of the greatest glove saves in decades: Nabokov snares a one-timer from Brad Richards of Dallas in overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup QF, May 4, 2009.

Unbelievable, and acknowledged as one of the greatest glove saves in decades: Nabokov snares a one-timer from Brad Richards of Dallas in overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup QF, May 4, 2009.

By David Kerans

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Since getting his first taste of NHL action on January 1, 2000, Evgeni Nabokov has fashioned one of the biggest goaltending careers in the history of the NHL.

His 338 wins place him 18th on the all-time list, and he has had stints as the number 1 goalie for the Russian national team in World Championship and Olympic competition. He is a player worth knowing, and we felt certain that he is a person worth knowing. When Nabokov's New York Islanders team visited the Washington Capitals Tuesday night, we jumped at the chance to gather a few of his thoughts on his past and his future.

 Nabokov keeps Toews out--Olympic QF, 2010

Nabokov keeps Toews out--Olympic QF, 2010  Photo credit: © RIA Novosti, Vladimir Baranov

The Islanders faced a Capitals team playing its best game of the season, as their coach Adam Oates would insist in his post-game press conference. Oates also said it was their best first period of the year, which tells us that Nabokov and the Islanders started this game very strongly—they led, 1-0, at the first intermission, and indeed they might well have been up by two or three. Nabokov himself looked very sharp in the first, and even threw in a couple of Hasek-like acrobatic sequences when the Caps were swarming the Isles and pouncing on rebounds. New acquisition winger Thomas Vanek triggered NYI's goal with a deft backpass through his own legs and looked indeed like a “definite upgrade" from Matt Moulson, as 4-time Cup winner and current Islander TV color man Butch Goring characterized him to VOR before the game.

But the seeds of trouble were evident for NYI in that first period. The Great 8 walked through Islanders' D men on several occasions, and other Caps forwards also had NYI on their heels. NYI hasn't had a standout D corps in many years (early 1980s, perhaps?), and the absence of concussed Lubomir Visnovsky meant the team had less skill to exit its zone and maintain possession elsewhere. Up front, Islanders forwards needlessly lost possession in the Caps' end several times, owing to miscommunication between teammates or blind passes--Grabner's no look pass back into the slot during a power play was a glaring error; he knows better. To those of us who saw NJ's forecheck and cycle/possession game roll them through the 2012 season and playoffs--despite fielding a disproportionately old and slow group of forwards--the indiscipline of the Islanders forwards is hard to swallow. The worst example came from unheralded Casey Cizikas, who tried to weave past two Caps' forwards to exit his own zone. That could have gone very wrong.

Alas, it went very wrong for NYI in the second period. Kyle Okposo got the Caps rolling with a one-touch cross-ice sabotage pass across his own zone, which WAS D John Carlson alertly picked up and slammed past Nabokov far side: 1-1. Evgeni looked a bit off his angle on the shot, and appeared displeased with himself. But Okposo had no business making that sort of breakout pass. The remainder of the period saw Nabokov repeatedly hung out to dry, and the Caps scoring a bunch. Some of the goals came off of lucky bounces (coach Oates conceded WAS had some luck), but the Islanders did very little to reverse the run of play.

This was a disappointing loss for the Islanders. If the team can't do more to maintain possession of the puck, the vulnerabilities of their defense corps will be magnified and their chances of returning to the playoffs will shrink. Coach Jack Capuano was gracious when rehashing the loss with a group of reporters, but he must be concerned about the team's prospects without Visnovsky.

Given the circumstances, it was likewise gracious for Nabokov to linger in the locker room for our chat.

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Nabokov's answers translated by David Kerans

Kerans: You grew up in the Soviet Union, which produced masses of good hockey players, across many regions, not just the big cities. In your case it was Ust-Kamenogorsk, in Kazakhstan. And you were a teenager during a traumatic period for society throughout the former USSR, the early 1990s, during the transition out of the Soviet economy. You got a chance to prove yourself in the NHL, you got drafted. And you proved that you belonged at the top. But many great prospects never got a chance. I know that firsthand. I coached the Spartak Moscow 1978 birth-year team, and we had 5 players with genuine NHL potential. I certainly haven't forgotten them, but the hockey world never got to know them: Kirill Denisov, Andrei Karpenko, Igor Ilin, Andrei Kochegarov, and Andrei Petrunin. For one reason or another, they never got their chance. It hurts me to remember this, and I can only imagine what they feel like. What about you, I'm sure you grow up with some players who deserved a shot at the pros, but they had to stop playing--or maybe kept playing, but no one ever called.

Nabokov: Well, I think in those times, they were troubled times, and it wasn't so easy to stand out and get drafted. I think it is easier now to get drafted, because everything is more visible. Scouts and general managers can see more players, everyone can see everyone else on the internet or on television. Back then it wasn't so simple. You really had to get yourself a spot into international competitions, to play in the best clubs. And I had the good fortune to get into one of the great clubs, Dinamo Moscow, and I think that club paved my way here. I took the risk of coming to North America, and I made as much as I could of the chance.

Kerans: And how exactly did you get your shot? Was it a bit fortuitous? Did some scout find you by accident? I know you deserved it, but how did it happen that they found you?

Nabokov: To be honest, I don't know exactly how it happened, the details of how they found me. But I had played for the junior national team of the USSR in 1992—they still had one then—and I was playing for Dinamo in the European Champions League. We finished second, losing only in the final. And then one of the managers, or maybe scouts, I don't remember exactly his position, John Ferguson came up to me, together with Wayne Thomas. They said they were interested in me, and a year later I left Russia.

Nabokov warming up in Washington

Nabokov warming up in Washington  Photo credit: David Kerans (VOR)


Kerans: If you had stayed in Kazakhstan or Russia, do you have a guess as to which club you would have played for? Do you know who wanted you?

Nabokov: Well, I was already playing for Dinamo. I really liked that club, I had played there three years, so I think I would have stayed there. But then again, who knows what fate would have had in store for me.

Kerans: If you had stayed, would you have become a different goalie? The game is a little different there, but not so much. Or would you be a different person if you had stayed near home? You left a lot of people behind when you came here.

Nabokov: Well, again, it's not easy to answer such a question with assurance. But yes, I think I would have become somewhat different as a person. I would have had a different life, different experiences, naturally. Who knows?

Kerans: A year and a half ago a journalist asked Ilya Bryzgalov what he would have become if not a hockey goalie, and he said “an astronaut”. {Nabokov laughs} When they repeated the question to Kovalchuk, he said “A taxi driver, because I like to meet a lot of people and help them out.” What about Evgeni Nabokov? Who might you have become? That's a difficult question, yeah?

Nabokov: Whoa, yeah, it's difficult to answer that one. When you grow up in a hockey family {Evgeni's father Victor had a long career as a professional goalie}, and you go to so many practices, and grow up within hockey, it's hard for me to picture myself otherwise. But if I just take a raw guess, well, I'd rather not guess blindly. I am not sure {laughs}.

Kerans: We know that coaches have to master team preparation and game tactics, but it seems to me that they have to be at least as good at managing personalities. You have seen how various coaches work. Do think you have the psychological awareness to be a successful coach? If someone asked you to coach, but would you want to do it? Would you want to manage personalities?

Nabokov: You know, I think I would like to try it. But it might depend on when and where, as they say. And coaching is not simple. It is something you have to study and learn. I think I might truly like it.

Kerans: If you try to look out now beyond your playing days, is there any chance you could be the Russian Stan Fischler? {note: Stan Fischler is the grandfather of hockey journalism, with almost 60 years of experience covering the NHL. Fischler has authored literally dozens of books on hockey--and also on the New York subway system, by the way--and is still actively covering games in the NHL's three New York area arenas. Some of his post-game interviews with Nabokov have been especially charming.-DK}

Nabokov: {laughing again} Of course I know who Stan Fischler is, but that's a tall order. I don't think I'm witty enough and learned enough to be Stan Fischler.

NHL, Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders, VOR's NHL
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