Evgeni Nabokov’s Attitude Problem May Burn His NHL Bridges

By refusing to report to the New York Islanders, Evgeni Nabokov may have burned one of his few remaining bridges to the NHL. At 35, he doesn't have too many chances to return, and his refusal to cooperate with the Islanders may affect his reputation as he looks towards a summer flooded with free agent goalies.

Evgeni Nabokov wants an NHL contract. He wants to play in the NHL this year, to prove he's still a top-flight goaltender and to show that he is deserving of a fair contract next year, despite a crowded UFA market that potentially includes Tomas Vokoun, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Craig Anderson.

He wants all of that, and yet, you’d think he’d know better after years and years in the NHL that now is not the time to burn bridges or look like, at best, a selfish player and, at worst, a jerk that’s not in touch with reality.

When word came that Nabokov was leaving the KHL for family reasons, it seemed logical that an NHL team would take a gamble on him. His pedigree was solid, in some ways spectacular. He’d probably come cheap just to get his foot in the door. And word was that Nabokov would be coming in hungry -- and as San Jose Sharks fans knew very well, a motivated and angry Nabokov was much better than a complacent one.

That doesn’t really mean much if Nabokov won’t see NHL ice. And even though the New York Islanders can still dispatch his contract in a few different ways, his refusal to report to the team that owns his contractual rights will most likely impact his future NHL options following the season.

Let’s just assume that Nabokov doesn’t somehow land on a team and power them with a Conn Smythe-worthy run to the Stanley Cup -- that sort of magic will land anyone an obscene contract, and it’s also pretty darn rare. If any scenario outside of that plays out, then there’s a good chance that Nabokov will find himself in the same position he did around training camp of this season: on the outside looking in.

Everything is a number’s game these days, so free agency becomes a game of supply and demand tempered by age and salary needs. Nabokov already has age (he’s 35) against him. He has the reputation of being a solid goalie with lapses in concentration that create groan-inducing moments. And now he’ll be known as the guy who stood up his ticket back to the NHL.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and right now Nabokov is playing the misunderstood and misjudged card. Here’s what he told ESPN:

It's nothing against the Islanders and their organization. It's just that I'm at the point in my career where I want to help a team win in the playoffs. I don't see how I could help the Islanders or what I could do for them.

The very fact that Nabokov had to settle for the KHL over summer 2010 shows that he’s misjudged the UFA market once; perhaps history will repeat itself this upcoming summer. The sensible thing to do, even if he his heart wasn’t totally in it, would be to report to the Islanders, get in as many games as possible, then have the following conversation with GM Garth Snow in a few weeks:

Nabokov: So Garth, you’re probably not making the playoffs this year.
Snow: That’s an astute observation, Nabby.
Nabokov: Then it’d probably make sense to trade me and get something in return, right?
Snow: Very good point. Let me call a playoff team and see what I can get back.
Nabokov: Sounds good. In the meantime, I’ll play hard to try and prove my worth.

In that case, everyone wins. Nabokov gets NHL time under his belt until he gets traded to a playoff team, the Islanders get an asset in return for something that wasn’t even there a few weeks ago, and Nabokov’s new team gets a veteran NHL experience for the playoff run.

But now that Nabokov’s taken his puck and gone home to San Jose, he’s established himself in almost a diva-like fashion, unwilling to work through the situation until the solution presents itself. That might be fine if he was entering free agency as a 25-year-old coming off a barnburner of a season, but he’s a mid-30s goalie in a flooded market coming off a terrible turn in the KHL.

Maybe this will all turn out well for Nabokov; perhaps his foresight is more Emperor Palpatine than Homer Simpson. But he’s certainly got the cards stacked up against him; teams don’t want players with attitude problems to begin with, but factor in age and questionable performance and the prospects get far worse.

For more on "As Nabby’s World Turns," be sure to check out Lighthouse Hockey.

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