Nabokov Back From the Dead as Trade Bait

In the past year, the NHL has seen how incredible goaltending can make a difference in a Stanley Cup run (see Tim Thomas when he's not pontificating on national politics). On the other hand, there has been plenty of evidence to show that inconsistent goaltending can affect much more than save percentage, as it shatters confidence and team defense (see Steve Mason and the scorched-earth start to the Columbus Blue Jackets' season).

That means that with the trade deadline around the corner, Cup contenders and semi-contenders are examining their goaltending options. And what seemed impossible just a few months ago makes for one of the more interesting trade scenarios in the league: what will the New York Islanders do with Evgeni Nabokov?

You remember Evgeni Nabokov, right? Let's take a quick trip down memory lane to see how we got to the end of this bumpy road. For years, Nabokov was synonymous with the San Jose Sharks. Nabokov withstood pretty much all of that team's transitions, from the squads led by Owen Nolan and Mike Ricci to Ron Wilson's coaching tenure to the current Todd McLellan reign. And when it came time to renew his contract, Nabokov and the Sharks parted ways, with the team citing salary cap reasons.

Rumors swirled that the Philadelphia Flyers were ready to acquire Nabokov's rights prior to free agency if he'd be willing to sign on the dotted line. He wasn't, instead he waited.

And waited. And waited. And no NHL teams came, which led to a stint in Russia before heading home — literally — in December of 2010. That led to a January contract with the Detroit Red Wings — except that Nabokov was claimed off waivers by the Islanders, then refused to report, citing a goal of wanting to be in the playoffs.

Whether he was privately seething or not, Nabokov showed up to the 2011-12 Islanders training camp, creating a logjam at the position. With goalies rotating in and out of starts, Nabokov started off October and November with an ugly 1-5 record. While he had a strong run with the Sharks and a lengthy career, it seemed like Nabokov's final NHL tenure would be an afterthought on a solid career.

It didn't turn out that way. Since then, Nabokov's put up strong numbers, including a stellar .931 save percentage. With the trade deadline looming, Nabokov's trade value has never been higher — and with things not going quite the way many contenders wanted between the pipes, Isles GM Garth Snow may be able to command a healthy return for the veteran netminder.

What are the possibilities? The Detroit Red Wings have had a strong campaign from Jimmy Howard, but a broken finger has exposed a lack of depth at the position. The Philadelphia Flyers expected Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov, but instead got a comedian's performance on HBO's 24/7 and not much else. Chicago's tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery has been up and down all season, and neither goalie sports a save percentage well over .900. Even Nabokov's old stomping grounds in San Jose might be an interesting fit — he knows the team, he knows the system, and Antii Niemi has only provided good, not great goaltending.

Besides his strong play of late, Nabokov comes with essentially zero cap restrictions. His one-year contract was for the league minimum, and since NHL cap numbers are crunched on a daily basis, just about any team could theoretically fit him — and with zero commitment to next year.

The only caveat to all of this is that Nabokov has historically proven to be a streaky goalie — the more starts he gets, the better. He also has a track record of decent-but-not-spectacular play during the playoffs. Does adding a would-be starter into a split or backup position do more harm than good? When the NHL season hits the stretch run of March, coaches tend to balance between riding the hot hand in net and pacing the schedule for appropriate rest.

All of these variables come into play as Garth Snow considers his trade options. And with the Islanders on the outside looking in of the playoff race, there's no time like the present to parlay one risk into a big reward.

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