Sunday, June 26, 2010.
Word leaked from the NHL draft that Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren had struck a deal that could have shifted the way his team viewed the goaltending position. Instead of the rotating lineup of backups and journeymen, Holmgren made a conditional trade, sending a seventh-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for the rights to Evgeni Nabokov -- if Nabokov agreed to sign with the Flyers.
Nabokov had just come off a banner year, going 44-16-10 while posting his best career NHL save percentage at .922. At 35, he was still a legitimate NHL starter, and with the Sharks under a cap crunch, he had a chance to go elsewhere.
It made sense. The Flyers had just lost a heartbreaking Game 6 in the Stanley Cup Final. Their young core of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter meant a bright future, while their tough blueline was headlined by Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen. All they needed was a veteran goaltender to bring it together.
Of course, things didn't come together between Nabokov and the Flyers. The Nabokov camp wanted too much money, as the Flyers offer was reportedly at $2 million for one season -- a more-than 50 percent paycut for Nabokov. Call it pride, call it ego, or simply call it a grand misjudgment of the goalie market. Whatever the case, Nabokov felt he was worth more than that. Unfortunately, no one else did, and Nabokov went to Russia.
Now, after a series of post-KHL transactions and a failed attempt to return to the NHL midseason with the Detroit Red Wings, he remains in limbo as property of the New York Islanders -- not playing games, not getting paid, just sitting around.
The Flyers, of course, have gone through a post-season goaltending carousel, with Sergei Bobrovsky going from starter to third-stringer in the course of a few days. After going through three goalies with limited success, the Flyers are down 0-2 to the Boston Bruins in the second round, including a disaster of a Game 1.
What might have been had Nabokov not overvalued his services so much?
As San Jose Sharks fans know, Nabokov could be one of the most maddening and brilliant goaltenders in the NHL. Acrobatic and competitive, Nabokov often made stops of the spectacular nature, though his lowlights contained goals-against of the groan-inducing variety. No one ever doubted Nabokov's skill set but his focus somehow went soft at just the wrong times, letting in heartbreaking goals at inopportune moments.
Still, there was no doubting that Nabokov could still be the starter for an NHL team. While never among the league's true goaltending elite, he still got the job done -- you don't get a .922 save percentage by being truly awful. With the likes of Pronger and Timonen in front of him, Nabokov would have had a stronger defense than the hit-and-miss group San Jose saw over the past few years. Sure, he would have let in those signature groaners, but he also would have made his share of spectacular game-saving stops. And in the playoffs?
There's something to be said for knowing who your goaltender is on any given night. If Nabokov didn't necessarily stop everything for the Flyers, at least his defense would know that they could count on him for a certain level of play -- one that's better and more consistent than what they'd seen in their netminders this season. More importantly, they would have had an entire season to establish a rhythm with him, understanding his tendencies and working with him to lower the team goals-against.
Instead, things are looking grim for both sides of the deal. Nabokov's contract is tied up with the Islanders, while the Flyers need something, anything to steady the ship going into Boston for Game 3. Perhaps Paul Holmgren can find a time-traveling Delorean and go back to June 26.
He could bring with him some printouts of articles, one showing Nabokov's waiver future and the other with the box scores for Philadelphia's playoff run. And as Nabokov changed his mind and accepted the Flyers' offer, the articles would slowly change to reflect the new timeline. With Nabokov's career playoff save percentage of .913, surely the box score in the new timeline would have shown a better result than what the Flyers are currently facing.
For more on the Flyers, check in with SB Nation's Broad Street Hockey.