The strange case of the goalie without a team heads into all-star weekend with Evgeni Nabokov caught in a firestorm of his own creation.
All he wanted to do was return to the National Hockey League, where he had played the previous nine seasons, but here’s where it got sticky — he wanted to do it on his own terms.
Now he has been caught, claimed on waivers by a New York Islanders team he doesn’t want to play for, suspended for not reporting, his career ostensibly taken hostage by his own stubbornness and staunch aspirations. It was one thing to want to be back in the NHL, with his California wife and his two kids in school in San Jose. It was another to misread all the warning signs.
A few weeks ago, when Nabokov made it clear he wanted to play again in the NHL, he approached his agent Don Meehan and the two formulated a plan or sorts. Meehan faxed a letter to all 30 teams in the NHL outlining Nabokov’s professional objectives. He wanted to play again for a competitive playoff team. He was willing to compromise salary for the right situation. But he was clear about what he was looking for.
The letter was sent out. At first there were no replies. Then one team — the Detroit Red Wings — responded.
“We knew Detroit had salary cap issues,” said Meehan, “but we also knew that they had an injury to Chris Osgood. Evgeny wanted to get back playing, needed some time to get there, wanted visibility within the league, and his preference was to be with a playoff team. I told him, if that’s your objective, Detroit is the perfect fit.”
He told him one other thing: He said Nabokov would have to clear waivers before he could be part of the Red Wings.
This is where the Red Wings, Meehan, Nabokov and just about everybody misread and miscalculated the situation. Nabokov signed with the Red Wings on the cheap, a $570,000 US contract for one season which would amount to less than half that much financially with so little of the season remaining. It was the easiest, cheapest way to get potentially quality goaltending, if in fact, Nabokov still has that in him.
Meehan knew there was some gamble in this, especially after Marek Svatos and Kyle Wellwood were recently signed by St. Louis and claimed by other teams on waivers, trying to get the in the NHL. And he thought, perhaps naively, or Nabokov’s case somewhat blindly, that because no other team responded to his letter, it was unlikely any team would claim the goalie on the waivers.
When it became the Islanders, the end of the earth NHL franchise, it turned out to be the worst possible situation for the goalie. While the Isles have taken some heat for claiming Nabokov, what general manager Garth Snow did made perfect sense. He grabbed a cheap goalie on a good short contract to finish this difficult year with. It should have worked for him — and even for Nabokov — who is looking to get back into the NHL as come kind of commodity. But despite urging from the Islanders and probably a push from his agent — agents get paid when players play, not when they don’t — Nabokov is home is in California contemplating his next move. Assuming he has one.
And he’s caught here because if he doesn’t play for the Islanders this season, the contract would extend to next season. Instead of having an inexpensive goalie for 30-some games, they would have a goalie at barely above league minimum for a full season. To get a new contract and get back in the league, he needs to play in the NHL.
“What would I have done?” Meehan repeated the question asked. “All I can tell you is he made the decision not to report.”
Now he has the all-star weekend to contemplate his future. The wise thing to do is hold your nose, report to the Islanders, play your butt off, and leave in free agency in July. But to date, Nabokov has avoided doing the wise thing, putting his career in limbo, his hockey future in self-imposed doubt.